The 19 best literary baby names

From Lyra to Ishmael, some of literature's greatest characters could be brilliant baby-name inspiration

An illustration of a stork carrying a bundle of books
Image: Flynn Shore / Penguin

Of all the things to consider when confronted with parenthood, choosing a name for your baby can be one of the most daunting - and exciting - challenges. But, as with many situations, books can help. Tucked inside the pages of paperbacks are thousands of characters with charming - and less charming - traits and stories to take inspiration from, from the traditional to the more unusual. And they come with the benefit of having a good story to enjoy at some point down the line.

Lyra His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

The fearless heroine of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy got a rock star vouch a few years ago when Ed Sheeran and Cherry Seaborn announced the birth of their baby daughter, Lyra Antarctica Seaborn Sheeran, causing His Dark Materials to trend on Twitter. Sheeran’s appreciation of the books had been made public a few years earlier, when he chose them as his castaway book on BBC show 'Desert Island Discs' in 2017. She’s a fine choice of role model: smart, fearless and extremely adept at riding polar bears (a useful life skill if ever there was one).

Patrick Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Patrick is a fantastically solid name, cropping up everywhere from historical fiction (Sharpe’s redoubtable Sergeant Harper in the Bernard Cornwell series) to modern day. It means ‘noble man’ as well as the patron saint of Ireland, so literary characters tend to either be named genuinely or ironically (hello American Psycho). The one we’re thinking of is a recent Patrick: the steadfast, solid, and deeply loving hero of Meg Mason’s runaway bestseller, Sorrow and Bliss. If your hopes for a child include their growing up to be a thoroughly decent sort, but not a pushover, this is the one to choose.

Basil – Rivals by Jilly Cooper

Jilly Cooper’s extensive back catalogue is filled with fantastic names (Tabitha, Tancredi, Laszlo for starters) but arguably none have done as much to resuscitate a name’s dignity as Basil Baddingham. Wrestling it back from Fawlty Towers, ‘Bas’ is born on the wrong side of the bed clothes to his brother, the loathsome TV magnate Tony Baddingham. He’s a great mate of the arch-cad Rupert Campbell-Black, and, thanks to his mother having fallen into the arms of an Argentine polo player, as good-looking, talented and joyfully reprobate as his friend. But as do arguably all the best people in Cooper’s books, Bas has a streak of decency that runs through him to the core. A scene where he, “bursting with pride”, takes the fragrant and neglected Taggie O’Hara on a jolly to the local hunt ball is completely gorgeous. 

Esmerelda The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

Esme has been a wildly popular name for a while now, but arguably its greatest literary incarnation is as Terry Pratchett’s leading witch, the iconic Esmerelda ‘Granny’ Weatherwax. Talented and powerful enough to be ever treading the edge between good and bad, (“If anyone locked me in a dungeon, there'd be screams.”) she is rooted as much in cast-iron will as she is truly feline levels of pride. Pratchett’s Discworld series has always been notable for its exploration of the many shades of grey that exist in being human, and Mistress Weatherwax, Esme, Granny, ‘you!’, however she is named, exemplifies the effort it takes to do what’s right, rather than what feels good. She appears in many of the series, with The Shepherd’s Crown – Pratchett’s last novel before he died – giving them both their curtain call. Pratchett dedicated the book to her.

Dahlia – Right Ho, Jeeves! by PG Wodehouse

It’s reasonably likely that a lovely baby girl may grow up to be an aunt, in which case you may as well give them a good role model. When dabbling in aunt names from PG Wodehouse – the past master of excellent aunts – it is extremely important to choose the right sort. Lean into Agatha, and you’ve chosen a terrifying aunt (see also: Agatha Trunchbull in Matilda). Dahlia, however, is exactly the right one: while redoubtable enough to engender serious thought in her nephew Bertie Wooster, otherwise untroubled by thoughts of any kind, she is also deeply capable and not above resorting to certain degrees of crime if it will help her and her household out of a scrape. Parents wishing to combine both literary nous and an element of culinary hopefulness may wish to keep Anatole in mind – Dahlia’s chef, and the only way to lure Bertie towards her house in times of crisis. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Dahlia remains one of the few British flowers not to yet feature in the top 20 British baby names, lending parents an air of discernment – they are also absolutely ravishing flowers.

Ilse – Emily of New Moon by LM Montgomery

You might recognise Anne as a favourite literary name, but the Green Gables girl’s creator, LM Montgomery, much preferred her other lead, Emily, who was based very much on herself. And this trilogy is certainly as magical as the Green Gables series, but infinitely less chaotic (and arguably less disappointing ending as it does before the realities of homemaking and family come into play which, certainly in Anne’s time, meant an end to career dreams in place of raising the next generation of dreamers – and a husband. In this trilogy, Emily, and her best friends Teddy, Perry, and Ilse, dream of writing, painting, breaking into a middle class career, and performing, if their straitened home lives will allow. Ilse (a non-Frozen take on Elsa, if you are so inclined) runs wild, her father too wrapped up in the death of her mother, whom Ilse resembles too closely for comfort, to raise her with any degree of attention. Ilse is passionate, fights as bitterly with Emily as she loves her, and is distinguished by ‘hair like daffodils and eyes like yellow diamonds’. 

Scout – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Perhaps the most famous child in literature, Scout is an adventurous soul with a big heart. Her burgeoning sense of morality and fairness is shaped by Atticus Finch (perhaps the most famous dad in literature ) and his courage to take a stand against the racism that pervaded mid-30s America. 

Matilda Matilda by Roald Dahl

The hero of one of Roald Dahl’s finest books, Matilda has emerged in recent years as a feminist icon and a sort of patron saint for quiet but intelligent girls who are underestimated by bullies and blowhards, at their peril. So clever she can move things with her mind, any Matildas are sure to be destined for greatness – or at least an excellent book collection.

Arya Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

While there may be a few sheepish parents out there who named their child Daenerys at the peak of Game of Thrones mania, before seeing exactly how the show’s finale played out (don’t let her play with the birthday candles, is all we’re saying), Arya Stark was as wonderful at the end as she is throughout the (still not finished) books. If you want to raise a true free spirit who can take care of herself, an Arya it is.

Zuleika The Emperor's Babe by Bernardine Evaristo

Zuleika – or Zee for short – is the star of one of Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo’s earliest novels, The Emperor’s Babe. Living in Londinium AD 211, she is taken as a teen bride by a passing nobleman but bravely resists her gilded cage to follow her own idea of happiness. Charming, resourceful and wickedly funny – who wouldn’t want a daughter like that?

Gerasim The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

OK, we’re going very highbrow for a moment. Leo Tolstoy’s novella about the protracted death of an unremarkable man may be one of the most morbid works of literature in history, but nestled within it is a character of true nobility. The protagonist’s butler is a young man of endless patience and empathy, who brings Ivan comfort in his dying hours as his family abandons him. He's so great, students of palliative care are often encouraged to study him as part of their training. 

Montag Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

We know: his first name is actually Guy. But the surname of Ray Bradbury’s famous protagonist is pretty cool too, don’t you think? In any case: Guy Montag is a fireman who job it is to burn books, until one day he sees the light and rebels against a society that has outlawed literature. Brave enough to be a fireman and battle against an oppressive totalitarian regime? Sounds like a great namesake to us.

Emira Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

The protagonist of Kiley Reid’s hilarious, Booker-longlisted debut novel Such A Fun Age worries she doesn’t have her life together compared to her friends. But the way she deftly deals with her neurotic boss and domineering boyfriend – both of whom try and make her the salvation of their own anxieties about race – in order to forge her own path makes her one of the most inspiring characters in new fiction this year. Plus the way she looks after Briar, the neglected toddler at the heart of the story, is a mini-masterclass in child-rearing.

Ishmael Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“Call me Ishmael,” your child, Ishmael, can say throughout their life to the delight of anyone who has read Herman Melville’s towering classic (well, the first page at least). Less the protagonist than a sort of floating, all-seeing narrator, Ishmael nevertheless is in the driving seat of what is arguably the greatest work of fiction in American history, which isn’t a bad literary pedigree to drawn on. 

Robinson Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

It’s not all that often you meet a Robinson, and in the case of the hero of ‘the first novel in the English language’, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 classic, even less often: he’s shipwrecked alone on a desert island for years. By his own estimation Robinson isn’t the luckiest of fellows, but he sure is resourceful and capable of moments of great kindness. And if want a child with a sense of adventure - well, Robinson is pretty much the first word in it.

Oliver Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Dickens was a master of a good character name - Miss Ninetta Crummles! Wilkins Micawber! Ebeneezer Scrooge! - but not all of them apply to a 21st-century baby (Little Uriah hardly rolls off the tongue). Oliver, though, does. It’s also been a stalwart of the baby name popularity lists for over a decade now, and with good reason: it shortens nicely, it’s timeless. But the story and character also boast appeal: the beatific orphan whose heart remains pure and honest in spite of terrible hardship. 

Silas Silas Marner by George Eliot

Here’s an interesting thing: since the Nineties, the somewhat ancient name Silas has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity, becoming one of the top 100 boys’ names in America in 2021. There’s an elegance to it, and it has the benefit of a namesake in George Eliot’s humble titular protagonist, Silas Marner. For those unfamiliar with the story, humble and hard-working Silas overcomes betrayal, poverty, exclusion and bad fortune to be an upstanding member of his community, taking in a semi-orphaned toddler as his own. All fine traits to bestow upon a small person.

Olive Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Few would read Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and think, “sure, that cantankerous old woman seems like a great nomenclature for my child”, but that’s not to say that Olive Kitteridge - outspoken, sometimes uncharitable - is unlovable. Rather, she’s human, and frequently spirited. 

Alice Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Perhaps one of the most famous fictional children out there, Lewis Carroll’s Alice was based on a real one. We don’t know if she was as pleasingly stubborn, precocious or courageous as the blonde-haired girl who appears in Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations, but there’s a reason why the version on the page has remained so popular over the decades. 

What are your favourite literary names? Let us know on editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.


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