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Five Tips for Naming Characters

Names

Photo Credit: Morguefile

I can’t speak for all novelists everywhere, but I can speak for myself, and when I’m creating new characters, one of the most important aspects for me as a writer is to come up with names that fit. Why? Well, for one, coming up with character names is fun. Two, less is more, they say, and a simple character name can offer a ton of background information about the setting, history, and the character’s place in both.

Keeping this in mind, I’ve devised a list of five general points to take into consideration when you’re naming your characters:

What’s the setting? When does your novel take place? Where? What’s the genre of your piece? If you are writing a historical romance set in England during the thirteenth century, you would be ill-advised to name your character Jennifer or Ashley. If your novel takes place in Spain, and your character is Spanish, then Bob or Fred wouldn’t be the best choices. Spend some time finding names that suit the time period and the place of your novel. There is a ton of information available on the internet that can help you to select an appropriate name.

Also, in addition to choosing the perfect name for your setting, keep in mind that the right name can actually provide unspoken background information. Do you want to insinuate that your character has a particular heritage? Take my last name, for instance: Mueller (Müller). Or the name of my grandparents: Schlegel. From that information alone, you can probably guess from where in Europe my ancestors originated. Use this to your advantage in your own work. Readers will notice these things. Maybe not consciously, but the information will still be there, regardless.

Overcomplicated names are a major turnoff. Maybe not for everyone. Maybe some people like weird names. However, barring the few people who aren’t going to mind your selections, there are a lot of pickier readers who will avoid your novel on name choices alone. Even if you’re writing a fantasy, take into consideration that weirder is not necessarily better. Names with too many apostrophes, ‘z’, ‘y’, or any other strange sound combinations are harder to remember and oftentimes distracting. Opt for a name that is closer to the language you’re writing in (I’m assuming English), with sound combinations that are more familiar to your average reader. You can come up with a ‘fantasy’ sounding name that is still pronounceable. The goal is to find one that borders the fantastical while still conveying a sentiment of our own reality.

Differentiate between names in your story. Try to choose names that have different phonemes (letters, sounds). This enables the reader to keep track of the characters without confusing them. For instance, if you have a character named Jimmy, don’t name his best friend Johnny. Not only are they both two syllables, they both have the double nasal consonants and begin with the same letter. They’re too similar. Instead, you could choose names such as Jimmy and Sam. Or, from the female perspective, Rebecca and Carol. In both cases, I’ve used syllable variation and have ensure that both names differ phonetically.  This provides a bit of flavor to the story and makes the characters distinguishable.

Use names to enhance the meaning of the story. Traditionally speaking, names are assigned some level of meaning, and those meanings, when used within the context of the narrative, can then further the deeper meaning of your overall story. If you’re having a hard time selecting a name for your character, visit a baby naming website or a name guide and look for names that embody aspects of your character. Is your character serious, driven, secretive? Names that hold an element of these traits may add an entire dimension to the layers of your character’s personality.

To give a personal example, when I was looking for a name for the main character in my short story, I opted for “Rivi,” which means “to bind.” Though this may be unclear without the context, the name itself provides information about type of person Rivi is. She is bound to the events that unfold throughout the story. She binds objects together, fixes them, so that she herself feels whole. Similarly, to escape the setting that she is bound to, she must first “unbind” herself from the people, from the memories, and, ultimately, from the past. As you can see, my choice was deliberate.

Paying attention to name meaning may actually change your perspective of the work, and in doing so, might show you things about your characters that you hadn’t considered beforehand.

Choose names that will be memorable. Every author dreams (well, at least I do) of having a character whose name is timeless. Scarlett O’ Hara? Frodo? Harry Potter? Even if you’ve never read the books, chances are you have heard those names. Keep this in mind when choosing your character’s name. Is the name going to be one that people will remember? Is there a way to distinguish your ‘Jessica’ from all the other thousands of literary ‘Jessicas’ out there? Don’t go overboard, but don’t be afraid to be original.

Personally, I have a habit (and I’m not sure what this says about me as a person) of naming my characters after birds or places. Granted, both of these aspects are important to the individual storylines (as well as the identity of the characters themselves), but I could have easily chosen different names, for different reasons. I have also found that I have a propensity for ‘R’ and ‘S’ names, and names that end in nasals ‘m’ and ‘n’. These are personal preferences, as I like the sound of them, but I have to be careful not to have too many of them in the same story.

Anyway, that’s your Naming 101 for the day. Now I want to know how you name your characters.

How do you choose the names? Do you put a lot of thought into it, or do you choose the first names that come to mind? Do you have any name preferences or naming habits? Let me know in the comments!

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7 thoughts on “Five Tips for Naming Characters

  1. Pingback: Five Tips for Naming Characters | Words and Wanderings

  2. I often use name lists off the internet to find good names appropriate to my setting, both geographically and in time. Though as with any internet research that can turn into a terrible time-consuming black hole.

    That point about differentiating between names is one where I’ve gone wrong in the past, having alpha readers come back to me unable to keep track of a story because there were too many ‘M’ names or similar vowels or suchlike. It’s easy to forget when picking each name in isolation, but really important to the overall effect.

    • Oh, yes. A black hole. I agree. Before I know it, sometimes I’ve amassed a list of some 30+ names for one character. Not necessarily the wisest of choices. But in general, I’ve found my characters name themselves rather easily. I’ve only had real trouble with three or four of them. (Hence the time-consuming black hole of doom.)

  3. Finding my character names is like mining for gold…I know it when I find it and I look everywhere: the internet, the phonebook, on my church prayer list when I should be paying attention to the service, but am not. When I do find that right name, a shiver trickles up my spine because I know, I’VE FOUND IT! Great post, Michelle. Thanks.

    • Yes! I know exactly what you mean. When I find the name, everything clicks. It is, as you said, very much like finding gold. Some characters do name themselves without consulting me first, but that happens more rarely.

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