Today’s topic is about an aspect of fiction writing that seems relatively minor, but can actually be fairly important. It’s something that (in my experience, at least) isn’t usually the first big idea that pops into the mind of the writer, but often, when well-chosen, ends up being an important aspect that sticks in the mind of the readers. What I’m talking about is naming characters.

NametagPersonally, I’m not very good at coming up with names. That can apply to titles of a work, or, more along the lines of what I’m talking about here, to character names. I usually can figure out easily what I want my characters to be like–their personalities, backstories, driving motivations, manners of speaking, and more. But not their names. This results in me having a well-developed person in my mind who I feel like I know very well, and yet it’s a bit awkward because I don’t know what to call them. Sometimes, when writing an early draft, I’ll just refer to the characters with titles such as “Male Lead” or “Female Lead” or “Villain” or whatever until I think of something more permanent–and I’ve heard of some fellow writers doing this too.

On the contrary, I’ve heard some writers say that, once they know a character well enough, the right name just comes to them, and it feels like the only one that fits that character. If you’re one of those writers, then that’s great! However, as I somewhat touched on in my last post, I personally am not the type of writer who can just churn out something on a whim and have it be good. I need to put thought, time, and good reasoning into my writing before I’m satisfied with it–and that applies to character names as well.

So, if character names don’t just come to you in random bursts of inspiration, then what’s the best way to think of them? I’m afraid I don’t know. But I’ll tell you a few methods that I’ve used in the past.

  • Just pick whatever sounds good.
    • There’s not a whole lot I can say about this one because it’s fairly subjective and imprecise–just a matter of personal preference, really. Go through the baby name book (is that still a thing?) or search for online name generators, because there are a lot of them out there–some for ordinary, everyday names, and some for more unique fields such as fantasy and science fiction. Just pick a name that you like and that seems to fit with your conception of the character.
  • Pick (or avoid) names with personal significance.
    • Some writers like to pick names based on people they know, such as if a certain character is based on or reminds them of a real-life friend or acquaintance. Personally, I used to do the opposite. I would try to avoid using names of people I knew, because I didn’t want my perceptions of those people to influence my perceptions of the characters. Of course, the more people I knew, the more difficult it became to find names that weren’t attached to anyone in particular for me, so I usually don’t make this my primary criterion anymore. Still, names of people you know, and their personal connotations for you as the author, can sometimes be a good way to decide whether or not to use a certain name.
  • Put in some secret or special significance.
    • This is one that I, personally, like to do whenever I can. If you want your character’s name to mean something, but you don’t want it to be super obvious or directly connected to real people, then find some distant connection that’s not so easily recognized, such as a rearrangement of letters or a reference to another character.
    • For example: About five years ago, for my first-ever NaNoWriMo, I wrote a story about aliens, with a heartfelt but painfully obvious Christian allegory underneath. I named the Christ-figure Ussej Thrisc, and I’m sure I thought at the time that I was being incredibly clever by rearranging the letters of “Jesus Christ,” and calling the villain who betrayed him Usdaj Troicasi. Some of my friends who read the story told me that they enjoyed figuring out the name puzzles of those characters and others, but I have to acknowledge in hindsight that in this case, once the names and their significance are figured out, the cleverness is thinly veiled from that point on.
    • These days, I don’t do as many anagrams, but I still like the names to have some significance, even if it’s one that only I know about and others might not recognize as readily. Sometimes, if a character is loosely based on a previously established character, or if I see a connection in my mind to another work, I’ll try to “borrow” parts of the other character’s name in order to pay homage. For example, in my superhero story, the dark vigilante’s secret identity is Wayne Murphy, and I fully admit that I took the first name “Wayne” from the last name of anotherWayne dark vigilante’s secret identity. (The other names in that story have similar significances, but that’s the only one I’m giving away, so if you ever read it, then you’ll have to guess.) Similarly, in my dystopian story about the dangers of forced or unhealthy romantic relationships, I’ve tried to appropriate the names of various literary and historical figures who were known for their bad relationships, such as Romeo, Juliet, Lancelot, Bathsheba, and Delilah (and I slightly alter them for the purposes of subtlety, resulting in characters named Lance, Sheba, and Lilah). The readers may or may not get all the connections, but the names at least mean something to me, and I still get to feel like I’m being clever and sophisticated by putting subtle literary and historical allusions into my novel that the common man probably won’t get right away. So if you want your characters’ names to mean something, try taking the name of a person or character who already means something to you, and rearrange or alter it a bit. Be creative and see what you can come up with!
  • Remember to pick something that works with the setting. This is more of a side issue and may not help you actually generate the names themselves, but you want to make sure that you pick names that are appropriate with the time, place, and tone of your work. For example, if you’re writing an epic high-fantasy adventure far removed from Earth, then you probably don’t want your main hero to be “Bob.” The name is casual and sounds silly in the context of the serious world around it (unless you’re writing a tongue-in-cheek satire, in which case it’s perfectly appropriate to feature an android named Marvin). Similarly, if it’s a real-world drama of ordinary people, then don’t pick anything too eccentric just for its own sake. But sometimes a good balance of the familiar and the exotic can be helpful. For example, futuristic stories like the one mentioned above will sometimes go with names that are less common, but not entirely unheard of. I like to think that names like Lance, Sheba, and Lilah help to give the setting some distance from our own culture, but also enough familiarity that the story still feels tangible and possible on some level.

Those are some of my best suggestions for coming up with character names. What methods or techniques do you use? Sound off below!

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One thought on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I enjoy finding names and spend a fair amount of time doing so because I keep the last point in mind; so there is consistency between names chosen within the same world.

    A technique that has helped me out in the last year is …

    Take half a sheet of paper (cut a printer page in half);
    Near one of the edges, write the character’s role (for instance, Female Lead);
    On a right or left column – write down the identifying traits that evoke the character’s theme, as well as potential cultural and lineage influences;

    Then, go onto the Internet and find 2-5 Name Sites (Behind the name is a good one, but there’s a lot of baby name directories and Wikipedia lists can be sometimes helpful);
    Find and Write Down 5-10 Potential Names found on these sites;

    Then start to narrow it down by saying the names out loud, looking up their meanings in different cultures, see any cross-references the name makes;
    Cross out names that don’t work, circle ones that might – I also map names between the influences that were listed in the prior column;

    At the point that there are around 3-5 names circled on the list;
    Expand upon these by replacing single letters within the names to generate more or rearrange existing letters to make a new name;
    By now, a certain aesthetic should have arisen of what the character’s name might be (that ‘couldn’t be anything else’ feeling) – if anything, there should be an understanding of what the name should /not/ be.

    That aesthetic can guide to a final decision for an established character name. Still, I like to have flexibility for names always – just in case of an unforeseen conflict with a name. Until I choose a name, I usually put [x], [y], [v] while writing and as soon as I do this technique and come up with a name, I find and replace.

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