What’s in a Name?

hi-my-name-is

As a writer the creation of characters can take awhile. You have to work on their appearance and their back story and figure out how they would react to different environments and situations. But one of the most basic and also most interesting parts of creating characters is naming them.

As a writer with a lot of characters it’s sometimes difficult to find the perfect name. There are many challenges, and I look forward to any feedback from readers on their methods in naming. So below I’ve posted some good things to consider when naming as well as a few problems to watch out for.

Methods for naming:

1. Random- sometimes it can be good just to pull a random name. It’s easy and simple and you don’t have to worry about it. After all, there are plenty of people who share the same name who are nothing alike. You invent the character, so feel free to just work the name into what fits rather than molding the character around the name. I like pulling out newspapers and using the first name I see. This is often good for a minor character who is not essential to the plot.

2. Name generators- Also a random system but sometimes a good way to just circle through a few dozen names with ease rather than hunting. These can also be nice if you already have a first name without a surname, or the other way around. You can find something random that sounds nice with the name you already have.

3. Baby name books/websites- if you’re like me you probably like having a name that means something. Whether you name the character after a historical or mythological character, or pick a name that means something related to him or her, you can start getting a feel for a character with a well planned name. My personal favorite is Behind the Name. Or my favorite book: The Oxford Dictionary of First Names. But really most any reputable naming site or book will do.

4.baby_name_book Namesakes- now I will cover this in problems too, but sometimes it’s fun to honor a friend or family member with a character named after them.

5. Number one names- Based on what time period you’re writing in (if you do fantasy like me this is useless) you can find out the top baby names of the era and pick from some of those. While the character might not seem as unique they’ll fit in a bit better with their time period.

So here are some problems to consider:

1. Namesakes- watch out for naming characters after people you know. Sometimes they can get offended if they don’t like the character, or don’t like what you do to the character. I named a character Jack years ago and had lots of people ask if he was based on a boy from my church. I kept having to tell them he wasn’t and he was my own unique creation.

2. Whole names- Always carefully consider what the whole name sounds like together. It’s easy to get caught up in parts and not realize what the whole thing might sound like. Just today I almost named a character Metion Metz because I wasn’t paying attention to what parts I’d already chosen. Be intentional about how the whole thing sounds.

3. Pronunciation- It’s easy to get excited by meaning and forget to really look at what the name is. It’s nice to choose fairly easy to pronounce names for readers because something utterly foreign makes it harder to relate. Of course this depends on what you’re writing, but I feel personally I relate better to a character if I know how to pronounce their name. So while Hjördís or Fakhriyya or Gwrtheyrn might seem like a cool name at the time, remember readers might not enjoy figuring out how to say it. Of course, that’s just my opinion, but I’ve definitely had my share of names with hard pronunciation.

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4. Research- while some laziness (random picking) is ok, it’s still good to know a bit about the name you’re picking. It would be foolish to name a life giving character Anubis when the name is the Egyptian god of the dead. Names have connotations just like words do. If you’re writing in a different time or different place consider carefully your name origins. It makes no sense for a fourteenth century Frenchman to be named Carlos.

5. Names you like- I find it a good principal to pick a name I like for a hero and perhaps a name I dislike a little bit more for a villain. If you can’t even get past the fact that you don’t like a name, how can you interact with your character at all? I could never have a character I liked named Gertrude, simply because it’s a name I don’t really like. It’s all a matter of taste, but I say pick something you can work with well. It’s your choice. This is another reason to stick with names that are more in your comfort zone. The more you relate with a name the easier it is to relate with a character.

So these are a few things for you to consider. There are lots of complexities behind the naming of characters. But don’t stress out too much about it. As I said before, your job as a writer is to mold your character. Sometimes you’ll make the name fit him or her. Other times you can let the name shape them. You’re the writer, so just have fun and figure out the methods that work best for you.

For any fellow writers out there, what do you do to name your characters? What problems do you sometimes face and how do you overcome them?

Any non-writers out there, what have you noticed about names from reading? Any comments?

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