Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What's in a Name? 10 Things to Consider When Naming Your Characters

I'm sorry Mr. Shakespeare, but, while the nature of the rose would of course be the same, calling it a dandelion would make people think of something very different from a rose.
Some people think names don't matter. Shakespeare, apparently, was one of those (at least when it was a rose being questioned). However, I am here to tell you that they do matter.
Many people name their characters in many different ways, from stealing the name of a friend to mixing up the first five letters they think of. Some people use name generators. Others have a book of baby names in their house. And that's all fantastic, but choosing a random name out of a hat isn't the way to go (usually). If you got introduced to a teenage girl nowadays, I'm pretty sure you'd do a double-take if she said her name was Matilda. Why? The name doesn't fit the year of 2015. That's just one way names do matter. Other things to consider include culture, the meaning of the name, and personality.
Obviously, your parents didn't choose your name based on your personality. They had no idea what you'd be like once you'd grown up. So maybe you ended up with a name you feel "fits" or maybe you didn't. The nice thing is that with fiction we do know our characters' personalities. And because of that we can choose names that "fit" just right.
Below are ten points I try to consider whenever naming a character.

1. Genre.
Obviously a character in a contemporary fiction will not have the same name as an alien in a sci-fi or high fantasy. Honestly I really hate it when a character in a fantasy has a very simple, normal, this-world name. If he started off in this world, fine. If not - if our world has no possible connection whatsoever to your fantasy land and the character's ancestors aren't long lost settlers from planet earth whose names weren't at all influenced by the native culture - then what on earth is a earthly name doing in your world?! Jack was born and raised on the planet of Fedora in the Sombrero galaxy? (Which, although it is real, is far beyond our reach in space - heck, even in Star Wars they didn't have enough power to make it out of their own galaxy.) Really? Please tell me what is wrong with that picture. Please. Besides the fact that astronomers decided to name a galaxy after a hat, of course.

2. World.
This is just a more specific version of the above point. Try to tailor your name styles to the world you've built. Do you have a very high-tech world? Make your names futuristic in sound. Medieval style world? Go for some older names, or make a few up that sound complicated and archaic. The sound of the names should fit with the world you've built. It is hard to give specific advice for this - you have to rely on your own judgement.

3. Culture.
Again, we're zooming in even farther. On earth people from different nations have plenty of different name styles. I know my parents identify the heritage of a family based off of the family's surname, sometimes. Mohammed is clearly a Middle-Easten sounding name, while Louis is clearly French. Go scan a baby name site with names from around the world sometime. You'll quickly notice the ones that aren't from your native language, I assure you.

4. Time period. 
This is especially important in books set on planet earth. I read a series called Dragons in Our Midst by Bryan Davis. The main character's name was Billy, but I could seriously never remember that. I was constantly thinking of him as Bryan. Why? Besides the fact that it was the author's name and I have a friend named Bryan, I think it is because Bryan is a more modern name. It fits in a modern world, while Billy sounds more 20th century. Bryan, in my mind, also seems to fit better with the picture of a young guy who can breath fire, has a dragon for a dad, and fights evil knights. Billy sounds more like a young kid in the Great Depression or a soldier in one of the world wars. I probably would have been able to remember the main character's name better if it had fit the time period he had been set in. Billy didn't fit the time frame, so I couldn't remember it. Pretty significant if no one remembers your main character's name, don't you think? Don't confuse the readers, please, and choose a name that comes from the right section of the timeline.

5. Other characters' names. 
Why on earth should you consider other characters' names when choosing one for the problem-charrie? I'll tell you. If you have a male MC with two best friends named Nolan and Nick, you're hardly going to want to name him Nathan. And don't just think about the letters the names begin with! Think about if they rhyme, if they use the same blends, if they're all the same number of syllables, etc. Don't. Make. Them sound. The same. Otherwise readers quickly lose track of who is who. Fantasy authors, it seems, run into the problem pretty often when they make up their names. Adarin. Renarin. Pilannen, Taputten. Whatever. They sound the same and I'd give myself a headache trying to remember a host of characters with names all three syllables long ending in "n." I bet you would, too.

6. Character personality.
This is where the sound of the name is what you should be focusing on. A character who is tough, silent, and a good fighter shouldn't have a name with loads of soft sounds in it like Gabriel or Johnathan. Likewise a caring, gentle character who serves as a doctor shouldn't be named Adarok or Zak.  Make the tough fighter Adarok and the doctor Gabriel and suddenly things click a bit better, don't you think?

7. Name associations.
Who would you associate the name "Newton" with? "Natasha"? How about the name "Juniper"? "Rose"? "Bud"? If you have the same basic associations as me, you'll think of Sir Isaac Newton, Natasha Romanov, a juniper plant, a rose bush, and the logo of Bud Light beer. How about "George"? Maybe George Washington, or a pompous king of England. Point is certain names have associations tied to them by now. If you're going with a name that is real, think about what famous people have that name and who they were/are. A character with the name George I half expect to be sort of stuffy, pompous, and English. Newton makes me think scientist. Rose makes me think of a delicate girl or, if I'm in the mood, a tough girl sort of like the Doctor's companion. A name can cast a shadow of someone else on a character. Consider if the shadow enhances or obscures who the character truly is before you decide on that name.

8. Name's literal meaning. 
Honestly I love this part. I try to hide little Easter eggs in my character names, even if I'm the only one who will ever notice them. I like to choose a name that describes my character. I compile the meaning from just one portion of the name, or two names, or three. It's like trying to fit together a puzzle and it is absolutely the most fun I ever have in character creation.
Here are a few examples of the meaning of my names (see if you can guess the actual names).
  1. Thief.
  2. Hard-to-conquer darkness.
  3. Bitter, dark herald.
  4. Noble hero.
  5. A curse looking for peace.
  6. Victory.
  7. Young angel.
I got the meanings either by translating the meaning I wanted into another language or my searching for names online with a specific meaning and scrolling through lists of names until I found one that sounded right.
You want to know whose names those were? I'll tell you, just because I'm proud of them. Here:
  1. Tyv.
  2. Keir Durjaya.
  3. Mara Ebony Harrod.
  4. Ace Harrod.
  5. Nitri (This isn't exactly right but I can't explain without giving spoilers).
  6. Victoire. 
  7. Gabriel Young. 
Pretty cool, huh?

9. Name's flow. 
Words have rhythm, as any poet or songwriter, I'm sure, could tell you. When compiling a two part or three part name, I always try to give each portion of the full name a different number of syllables to avoid a staccato beat. Take Julian Ace Harrod. Three, one, two. Sometimes I make a pattern: Mara Ebony Harrod. Two, three, two. Whatever I do I just strive not to stick names with the same number of syllables next to each other. For instance I'd never make a character's name Nick John White. Horrors! It rolls together too easily. One one one. Bleagh. However, that name isn't nearly as bad as it could get. Remember the points I made about considering other characters' names? Most of those apply here too. Don't name a character Nick Nathan Nolan. Or Rick Maverick. Please. Please. I'm begging you.

10. Name's length.
This is the most un-creative part of the naming process. This is where practicality comes in. John Flanagan gave out some advice (I can't find the precise quote; sorry) about naming characters. Don't choose long names. Over five characters (erm, as in letters and numbers, not the fake people) and things gets annoying. If at all possible keep your character names five letters long or less. Otherwise you start wanting to just copy and paste in the name every time you have to type it. Six, sure maybe. But believe me, once you get to seven you will regret choosing that name for the rest of the writing process. I once has a charrie named Tristan (seven letters, not too bad, right?) and I messed up his name so much and it was breaking up the flow of my typing and ERGH. If you want to go ahead and name your character Nebuchadnezzar or Belshazzar then proceed at your own risk.

So, there are a few ideas. If you want to figure out how to think up a name, I recommend taking a trip over to this baby name website, typing in a meaning (nothing too complex; try for single adjectives and nouns like "war," "dark," "light," "noble," etc.) and selecting a gender, and then scrolling through the lists of names that will appear. You'll get origins from English to American Indian to German to Inuit to Russian to Swahili. You won't be lacking for choice. If that fails, try translating a word into different languages, swapping letters in and out of a existing name, or mashing together a few cool-sounding syllables (not as sophisticated but at times it works - where do you think I came up with all those strange names for examples during this post?).
You've made it down here to the end. Kudos. This was long. If you're not too fed up with me yet, leave a question for Keir at the post I made last week. His interview will be posted next Tuesday and I don't have nearly enough questions yet!

How do you name characters? Do you agree/disagree with any of my points? 


  1. I'll be honest...I don't think about meanings a whole lot when I name my characters. I usually just choose the first name that clicks with them. But it definitely has to sound like them, and FIT THE WORLD. I hate it when a character is given a name that's so out of place. Another of my pet peeves is when only the main character has a complex, 'special' name - or when they're the only one with a simple name, for that matter. I know it's supposed to make them stand out, but it always gets on my nerves .

    1. Yeah, I like to give my characters names woth meaning but sometimes I think of one that clicks. :)
      Oh I KNOW! If you want to make a character stand out you need more than a over-complex or over-simplified name.

  2. I think a lot about meaning when naming a a character, but in the end, I pick a name that 'clicks' in my mind. Sometimes, it just comes to me and I just go with it. I guess that in the end, you can always change the name anyway, so when I'm really struggling, I just pick a name with meaning and use it.

    I think it's very important that a name blends into the world of the story. Great post!

    1. I spend hours looking at names with the meanings I'd like. *rolls eyes* It can be very hard to find one that clicks, but I'd never choose one unless it didn't, so I know what you mean. :)
      Thanks, and thanks for reading!