Unique Character Names

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
I just finished reading a novel with two characters named after mythological figures. OK. I have nothing against mythological figures. The author took considerable time to tell readers that these were mythological names (they weren't names you would instantly see and know that) and why their mother had chosen these rather odd names. OK. Except the fact that these were mythological names did nothing to advance the story. It didn't tell us anything important about the characters, the mother, the story. It was as if we were taking a short break from the novel for a lesson in mythology. It was a bit distracting. And you never want to distract our reader from their true agenda: reading your book and falling in love with your story and characters.

I have nothing against unique character names. I often name my characters after my children (or at least give
them the same first initial). I even named one of my characters after Helen of Troy. The difference is, that little piece of information remained my secret (yes, now you know too). But knowing that secret made me feel a little closer to Helen and helped me to develop her into the person I wanted her to be. So how can we give our characters unique names (as opposed to paging through the phone book).

Helen of Troy

  • Name them after people in your life. This is fun but I recommend using middle names or variations on names (Ian instead of John) just in case your character ends up doing something their namesake won't enjoy -- like murdering someone!
  • Name them after historical figures. My Helen is named after someone left behind by someone who goes to fight a war. But there are tons of possibilities. Franklin D. Roosevelt's namesake could have a bum leg (FDR was in a wheelchair after a bout with polio), Pete could be a baseball fanatic (Pete Rose was a member of the Philadelphia Phillies) or Jean could have once been an aspiring actress (after Norma Jean a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe). Just don't make it TOO obvious. You want your readers to feel they've uncovered a secret if they decipher the origins of the name.
  • Name them after a place. Please, no Brooklyns or Milans (unless of course your book takes place in modern times -- but aren't there enough Brooklyns and Milans in the world today?) But so many places beg to be shortened or used as a last name.
  • Foreign words. Of course the fun of using names with a foreign origin is you can choose a name that "matches" your character and use it, or a portion of it. Such as the beautiful Bonnie, coming from the Spanish bonita for beautiful.
  • The Baby Names Book. You knew you were keeping that old baby names book for a reason! Now you can page through it) or one of the many wonderful online sites) and find a name that means stubborn or shifty or princess and you're in business.
But I beg you, don't explain why your characters have their names in your writing. Save that for an interview after you book is published! 

So, what are the names of your characters and where did you find their names?


Sioux Roslawski said...

As I was working on my WIP, I used character names beginning with the same letter as the person I was basing the character on...or, I used a longer version of the name (Carolyn for the real person Carol, for example). After some feedback, I'm moving my characters more into the realm of "fiction" and changing their names (and nationalities) as well.

Thanks for this post, Jodi.

Anonymous said...

I like the Social Security baby names site to create a feel for a certain era, and Behind the Name to get some background on different names. I once found a wonderful name generator that you could set to different nationalities but, alas, I can't find it again. Teach me to not bookmark things.

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

I've found lots of character names with my trusty Baby Names Book. Like Susan (above), the Social Security site is fantastic for decade-related names for multi-generational family member names. Thanks for the post, Jodi.

Margo Dill said...

This made me smile and good tips by the way. You could also explain your names in an author's note--I've seen that done before too. I often use family names (people I know) for names in my books.

Eugenia Parrish said...

I just try to just make sure the reader doesn't stumble in the middle of a sentence. (Can anyone read the latest fantasy books? What on earth kind of name is Prince Hztlomaqxia?) Names pop into my head right away, but often I will change them during the first half of the book for various reasons, usually because the names are too similar and that makes it confusing too. I just go on one of the "baby name" sites and browse. The only time I've ever explained a name was because it was a nickname from her last name, Berde, and her boss was irritated by it: "I hate the name Gertrude. I have two cousins with the same name and we went to the same school. One is Gertie and one is Trudy, so I became Berdie to keep us straight." So not only do you see her, you see her midwest childhood. Her friend went from Barb(too close to Berdie)to Janet (too close to another character, Joanna)to finally Connie. So the five girls were Berdie, Connie, Joanna, Ruth and Ilona. I knew the last was right as soon as I saw it somewhere online -- it just spoke to me of her snooty upbringing! So my choice of names is almost always due to consideration of the ease of reading the story.

Anonymous said...

Behind the Name has a fantastic name generator that allows you to select one or several categories for names (ethnicities, fantasy types, etc). It also has selectors for gender and a spot to enter a last name--or generate a random one.

Author Leanne Dyck said...

As I'm Icelandic-Canadian, occasionally, I like to choose Icelandic names. But my writing group encourages me to choose ones that are ease to pronounce. This is not a white bread world. I firmly believe that our writing should celebrate this.

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