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Naming Your Characters

By on December 18, 2014 . Category Column

Naming your characters isn’t one of those things that’s incredibly hard or emotionally taxing, but it’s still something I want to cover.

The fact is, naming your characters can get confusing, and there are things you have to take into consideration when naming your characters.

For instance, in my modern-day WIP (work in progress) was easy—just pick names I like and use them. This is always the easiest, as it doesn’t require any extra brain work.

However, in my medieval story, I had to make sure the names I was using existed. I had to check that they were culturally and geographically applicable to my characters. For example, the first recorded use of the name “Jessica” was in 1596, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. So I really shouldn’t be using it in my story set in the 1100s.

And I have yet another book that’s set in the far future, where much of our current culture is nonexistent.

In each of these examples, there’s both the factual element of how to name characters, and the “feeling” a name evokes.

For instance, while it would be possible to use a name like “Jessica” in a future-set story, it might not feel right. “Jessica” would have sounded a bit out of place in The Hunger Games, where names like Katniss and Effie were the norm.

Alternately, you can use names to evoke certain moods from your readers. You don’t want to be blatant about this, but if you want to hint that someone has a mysterious past, give them an unusual name. By “unusual” I don’t mean something like Thyjeswa (I just hit my keyboard and capitalized the first letter). I mean names that are slightly less common—Isla, Ariadne, Sebastian. Things like that aren’t unheard of, but they’re not names you hear every day.

I joke that baby naming websites, like thinkbabynames.com, should really be targeted at authors, since we name WAY more babies than any mother ever will. These sites are excellent for writers because they allow us to collect names in batches. Have a group that needs to have names from the same culture? You can search by language! Need names with particular meanings? You can search by meaning! Need names starting with a certain letter? They list them alphabetically!

There aren’t many rules to naming characters—it’s basically an “anything goes”/“do what you want” kind of deal—but I will give you a few suggestions and guidelines to keep in mind when picking character names.

 

Make Sure the Name Fits

Fits the story, fits the setting, and fits the character. Names set a tone, strike a chord, and can create (or destroy) a mood. Sometimes, modern names are best. Other times, names specific to a certain culture or country will serve you better. Even among those distinctions, you’ll have variation. I have a friend who named her lead female character a boy’s name—it gives you an immediate impression of her, and it’s very different from how the reader would perceive her had she been named something feminine, like “Brittany” or “Shelly”.

Not that there’s anything wrong with “Brittany” or “Shelly”! They’re lovely names, and for characters who suit them, they’re great.

Alternately, you can use a name that’s way off the mark for a character (think “Jayne” in Firefly) to create some fun contrast. A name that carries the exact opposite feeling of your character can be amusing, or strange, and might be something they hate or are routinely teased for.

Some might argue that the name doesn’t have to suit the personality, because it’s just a name, but I’d disagree—what we are named, and how others respond to us because of that name—all have an impact on who we become. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s good to consider.

Make Sure the Name is Pronouncable

There’s nothing worse for a reader than constantly encountering a character name that you have no idea how to pronounce. It’s frustrating, it disrupts the flow of the story, and it’s really unnecessary.

Now the problem here is you can’t know how everyone thinks, so if you’re using unique names, you’re bound to end up using a name someone can’t figure out. And that’s okay—as long as it’s more of an isolated incident.

But, like my little made-up “Thyjeswa” up there, some names are just super weird. Again, you can break the rule, but only if you’re doing it for a purpose. I have a name that’s pretty darn weird in one of my books, but it’s to show how far removed this character’s culture is from our own.

If you are going to use an odd name, find a way to slip a pronunciation guide in there. It’s commonly used and some people will caution against it, but frankly, I’m pretty relieved when there’s a scene where the oddly-named character explains how their name is pronounced to another character. It doesn’t feel forced to me, and it’s a handy way to tell your audience, “THIS is how you say it!” (J.K. Rowling even did that with Hermione, which I was quite grateful for, because I had no idea how to say that name before the fourth book.)

Try Not To Make Name Too Similar to Other Names

Unless there’s a really good reason, avoid naming two primary characters things like “Mia” and “Mya”, because a reader might get confused. If you have twins or you want to create some confusion by having ultra-similar names, make sure that you offer your reader some way to keep track of who’s doing what, because while you can keep track of your literary babies, no one else is paying as much attention as you are, and they very well may get mixed up.

I’d also avoid using too many names that start with the same letter. Not only can this be confusing, but it looks kind of sloppy. When I see this, I think, “Did this person just scroll down one page of a list of names and pick everything off that?” It makes you look unimaginative.

Once again, you can break this rule, but you must do so decidedly. Be prepared for a little confusion, and make sure it’s worth it to you. For example—at the risk of sounding like some kind of Harry Potter fanatic—J.K. Rowling named the inn keeper (a minor character who appeared a few times through the series) “Tom”…and also the villain. This was to show Voldemort’s disdain for being linked to any other person. It is mentioned that he twitches when he hears he shares his name with another, and Dumbledore even makes note of it as a sign that Tom Riddle was a troubled young man.

Again, there are a few suggestions and guidelines here, but I’ve broken every single one of them myself, and plenty of other successful, talented, and well-loved authors have, as well. So ultimately, what matters is that you love the names you choose for your characters. You should feel they represent the character well, and they convey the message you want to convey. As they say, “haters gonna hate,” so write your story your way and name your book-babies whatever you want.

 

What’s your favorite method for naming characters, and what’s the best resource you use?

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  • Mauricio R B Campos

    After reading this, I will name my badass char as Angela.

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