What's in a Name? Thoughts on Naming Characters

Sunday, February 10, 2019
Can you believe almost a year ago today I wrote a post featuring tips on naming characters? You'd figure one year later I would have mastered the art, but of course, I sit here today admitting to you my weakness - I hate naming characters.

In my defense though, while my character names may not be the best, there ARE people with the names I give my characters. I mean, can you imagine someone going up to a parent and them asking the name of the child, and this person saying in response, "Wow, you named your kid that? It's so cliche." I mean, that person would have to run after saying that, because those are fighting words.

The thing about naming characters is that it's more than just finding a name, it's finding a name that fits. So, even though finding the right name can feel as mysterious as finding the right story idea, there are a few tips to consider when naming your character.

1) Know your character.

I find the closer I am to a character, the easier it is to name them. This could be why naming characters in my first draft are never easy. While it's easy to pore over lists of names to pick and choose random ones, if we don't know who our characters are, how can we name them? When I begin to imagine my character and really get to know them, a real person takes shape. Then I can name them.

2) Names evoke feelings.

Think of that person in middle school that picked on you relentlessly. Did you name a character after them? Maybe that character befell a tragic death or public humiliation. Or how about the first person you fell in love with? Maybe the relationship worked out after all in the story you wrote. Names evoke feelings. Sometimes the feelings come from us - the author - and maybe we shape and name our characters after someone from our distant past. But sometimes the feelings come from the character. Maybe this character's parents were hippies and that inspired their name. Maybe the character named themselves after they transformed into a new identity. Maybe they are named after a family member they never knew but heard about all their lives. Maybe their name is relatively ordinary, but spelled differently. Maybe they hate their name. Maybe they love their name. Yet, whether it's a long story or a short one, we all have a story attached to our name in some way. Think about the story of your character's name when you think about what to name them.

3) A rose wouldn't be the same named anything else.

Would Ishmael from Moby Dick be the same if he wasn't named Ishmael? What about James Bond? What about Bridget Jones? And what about Norman Bates? When you imagine these characters, a certain realness just pops off the page, doesn't it? Sure, Norman Bates doesn't exist, but isn't he so incredibly real to all of us? Make a list of your favorite characters from movies or books and research where these names come from or what inspired them and figure out the root origins of the first and last names. You'll be surprised how much these names shape who these characters are.

So, what's in a name? A lot actually.

How do you name your characters?


Sioux Roslawski said...

Nicole--I'm lucky. Usually I don't have to name my characters because I write creative nonfiction. My real-life characters already have names.

However, as I delved into a fictional piece, I had to ponder names. For me, history played a part in the process. What names would have fit in almost 100 years ago? Some of the minor characters' names were actually lifted right out of that bit of history: I would take one real-life person's first name and another real-life person's last name and mash them together.

A couple of your points you outlined in #2 I hadn't even thought of. And you are right. A lot rides on the name of a character...

Angela Mackintosh said...

Nicole, I can't believe it's already been a year! Wow. :) I cracked up imagining a person telling someone their kid's name is cliche. Lol!

Like Sioux, I write creative nonfiction, but I change all of my character's names, so really, it's similar to writing fiction. And it's hard! I tend to go by sound for names. My ex had a name with an eeee sound at the end of his name, so I changed it to a name with a similar end sound but completely different. I don't know if this is the best idea because it's obvious to pick out, but it helps me mentally because the sound of a name or word is so important. A hard ck or nt at the end of a name is much different than a soft ie or ly. Obviously, this wouldn't work in fiction because you start without a name to begin with, but what you could do is think of the actor that would play your character in a movie, then take their real name and change it to something with a similar sound. This can help you visualize the character.

Renee Roberson said...

This is kind of funny, but since I write YA, I name a lot of characters names that were on my wish list when I was trying to come up with names for my kids! I really wanted to name my daughter Noelle, but my husband wasn't on board. So she's a main character in one of my books! My other YA features a storyline inspired by my son, so I named the character his middle name. When I'm writing something set in a different time period, I try to search websites that can help generate names that fit in with the times. There are a few different name generators but I can't think of them off the top of my head. It's always interesting!

Nicole Pyles said...

@Sioux - I love that idea that you did for historical fiction names!

@Angela - Oh I love that idea of chosing similar names. And the actor idea - now that's a good one!!

@Renee - Oh I love your idea for chosing names of your baby name list!

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