The Art of Character Naming
I love names, and when I say love, I mean LOVE. A mushy, swooning, gooey love. My obsession probably borders on the insane, but it’s useful. Because of this obsession I’ve got probably two hundred names of all sorts tucked away in my back pocket for use in future stories.
My list includes modern names like Amare, Cosmo, and Britta. There are unusual names like Rune, Venetor, and Orsa. I’ve even got different spellings like Lyn, Dove, and Mae. Every day my list grows as I find names that have potential.
Even with said list to help, naming takes me a LONG time, sometimes hours, and sometimes days. I’ve stewed over a character’s name for days, only to toss it out, and try again.
I’ve developed a little process over the years on how to name a character, and the first step is to decide if they will be a villain or hero. Sometimes this step is taken care of because the character is already formed. It may seem like a pointless first question, but the reason will come out in step two.
Meanings. Yes, the meaning behind the name. Having a proper meaning with the right character can bring characterization to a whole new level. Since that can be a little abstract, I’ll use an example. Lilith. Sounds fluffy right? Rolls off the tongue like cotton candy. It means night monster. Yes, you read that right. Night Monster. In Jewish folklore, Lilith was a female demon. Would it be wise to name a protagonist demon?
How about Ava? This is one of my favorite names. It’s a modernization of the name Eve. Now Eve means life or living one.
In a story would the good guy be named demon? Or Life? That brings us right back to protagonist or antagonist step. A good name that means something terrible makes a great protagonist name. In fact, Lilith is the antagonist in my book Fate of Fyre. Yep, I went with demon for her.
I wish that a good name was as easy as googling the meaning, but it’s not. It’s got to be a name free and clear of other famous characters. A “loaded” name. Being loaded means that it carries a strong weight or bias. I’ll give you an example. Hitler. All anyone thinks of when they see the name Hitler is the mass murder and all around bad guy. If a hero in a book is named Hitler, I can guarantee that book won’t sell. No one will believe that a good guy can be named Hitler.
Loaded bad names aren’t the only victims. Darcy, Nemo, Frodo, Bilbo, Shakespeare, etc. Anytime a name is known so widely as someone (something) else; it’s loaded. This counts for just more than proper names. Cairo. Yes, as in Egypt. Any place name like Brooklyn or Sydney counts as loaded also. Even in epic fantasy, where the world is entirely different from the book, place names count as loaded.
Sure, a loaded name can work if that’s the story. Example, Bridget Jones Diary. Bridget’s love is named Mark Darcy, but that’s what the storyteller is going for.
The second step I take is considering personality. This can be a bit harder to pin down because it’s based on opinion. I’ll use an example from my own personal biases. Rebecca. All the Rebecca’s (minus one) that I know are snobs. Look down on you, arched eyebrows, pursed lips, sobs. I am aware that not every Rebecca in the world is like that, but I’ve never been able to name a good character Rebecca.
The third step I take is to consider the time-period. Is the world old-timey and quaint? Like, Elizabeth. Is the world modern and unique? Like, Marz. What about updated spelling? Like, Lyn. Everything needs to fit within the world that’s being created.
This is where I would wave a huge caution flag if I had one. Unpronounceable or hard to pronounce names. Yes, even those distant alien worlds, untouched by the hand of Earthlings need to have names that are easy to pronounce. Don’t drop in an Xxxeueusxues. It may be the best name in the world, but don’t do it.
I’m guilty of this sin. I created a name that I just loved. Swoquix. Now it may look simple, but I found that I kept pronouncing it differently every time I said it. That was my hint that the name was not right. Since I loved it, I was able to able to alter it. The Uquix are some evil creatures in my Fate of Fyre book.
Now, this isn’t the fourth step; it’s more of something to be aware of. The sound/letters names begin with. If every single character’s name starts with the letter M, it will be hard to keep them straight. Marko turns into Mario and then Marv and Mervin and Marleen and Maria. I rest my case. This caution can also apply to endings.
I’ll tell a story. I know a family who named all their kids with an –ly ending. Emily, Nataly, and Ally. Their mom would have to cycle through the names to get to the right kid. Emily turned into Nataly, who became Ally. Confusing.
I wonder if this would be the fourth step? Maybe this belongs in the time-period section. Picture this; utopia, blue skies, clean water, singing birds, and the hero is named Bog or Mist. Would an adult, high fantasy book succeed if all the characters were named Suzy, Bob, and Dick?
Want some unsolicited advice? I hope so, because you’re reading my blog 🙂
So here it is. Sometimes it’s hard to decide between names. Write a few paragraphs using each name and see which fits the best. Even if those paragraphs aren’t included in the final book, it’s a good exercise. I’ve done that a few times while trying to decide on a final name.
Naming can be hard, impossible almost, but it can be done. Most of all don’t be afraid to ditch a name if it just isn’t working. This goes for the plot, setting, characters, whatever. If it doesn’t work, ditch it.
Sooooo, let’s do a little recap:
1. Decide if the character will be a hero or villain. Pick the name meaning that fits their role in the book.
2. Figure out their personality and find a name that fits.a
3. Avoid loaded names.
4. Make sure the name fits in the time period or setting.
5. Avoid similar sounding/spellings.
6. Make names pronounceable.
7. I’m amazing
Just because you asked nice, I’ll tell you some of my most favorite names.
Can you tell that I like some offbeat names? If it weren’t for my husband, my kid would probably be named something insane like Ryker Maze Ridge River. No joke.