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This Writing Life: Finding Names for your Characters

26 April, 2012

Way back in the mists of time (actually in October of last year), I wrote a post detailing some links to sites that I use when naming characters. I promised at the time to talk about the process in a bit more depth, but never got round to it. Until now. So, what do I think about when naming characters?

The character.  Maybe this is an obvious place to start, but first of all I consider the character themselves. What are they like? What sort of background are they from? Are they the sort of person who’d prefer a short, easy nickname or a long, grand title to demonstrate how important they are (or think they are)? Are they using the name their parents gave them, have they taken on a new identity – or did someone else entirely give them the name, such as a slavemaster or a friend? Do they have more than one name, to be used by different people or in different circumstances? There are all sorts of questions you can ask yourself about a character and why they have the name they have. However, sometimes you need a dig a little bit deeper, to make the name fit the character and the world they inhabit.

Culture.  I mentioned their world just before. Your characters’ names need to fit the culture they live in – or, alternatively, they need to not fit, to demonstrate your character’s status as an outsider. You can also consider real world cultures here. If your fantasy world (and I’m focusing on fantasy here, as always) is based on a particular existing or historical culture, that’s a great place to look for names, or at least inspiration. As an example, I’m currently working on a Japanese-inspired fantasy, and have used names like Kaito, Itami and Tomiko. One of those is a real Japanese name, one is (as far as I know) made-up and the third is a translation of a concept.

Meaning.  If you want to dig deeper and perhaps narrow down your search for names, consider their meaning. You’ll likely never talk about the name’s meaning in the story, but knowing it for yourself can give you a better understanding of your character. Perhaps your character is stubborn, and their name means ‘ox’. Perhaps they work as a stablehand and their surname means exactly that in their country’s language. Or perhaps you really want to name your character after a colour, but find ‘Red’ doesn’t fit – in which case, you can try looking for names from languages other than English that mean the same thing. As another example, from those names above: Itami means, from what I can gather, ‘pain’ in Japanese, which perfectly fits a magical ability possessed by the character in question.

Pronunciation. This can be a big thing in fantasy, unfortunately. Names full of apostrophes, or with no vowels, or that sound unfortunately similar to bodily functions (and I’ve seen at least two of these in published novels). Try saying your characters’ names out loud. Do they roll off the tongue? Good. Could they easily be shouted, if you were in trouble and your character was the only one around to hear? Excellent. Do you feel as if you’re coughing up a lung just trying to say the first two syllables (and that’s before you even get to the four after the apostrophe)? For the sake of your readers, and their sanity (and yours, if you ever do a reading from the book), pick another name.

Other names in the book. I’ve come across a few books recently in which all the characters had frustratingly similar names. In one, the MC, male love interests, villains and secondary characters overwhelmingly had names beginning with C, which was confusing, to say the least. Unless you have a genuinely good reason to produce lots of similar sounding names (think Tolkien, and the lineages of his Elves), then try to vary your character names a bit, again for the sanity of your readers.

For something that sounds so simple, naming characters is actually a vast topic. What other methods do you use to make names fit your characters? Feel free to give examples in the comments of your characters’ names, and why you chose them.

  1. Nicky permalink
    26 April, 2012 5:27 pm

    I’ve never been good at giving names to my characters. I have a stockpile of annonimous characters when I start to write something and, as you said, I first give them background and personality, and acording to that I give names that suit well. Even then, I question myself if I chose right now and then. So names are always a dilemma.

    • 30 April, 2012 1:28 pm

      I think names are one of those things you either think of instantly, or they take a long time, and it can be different for every character. I occasionally have to rename characters as well, when I decide the original name doesn’t fit. Like most things in writing, it can be a bit of a minefield!

  2. 6 May, 2012 2:46 pm

    Isn’t it odd? The characters themselves come quite willingly to me. Now, why can’t I get them to tell me their names? (I’m only halfway kidding.)

    However, I respect your suggestions for finding the appropriate name. I’d never thought of tying them to their culture or background. Since I write mysteries, my biggest concern is that the have a name unlikely to be found on anyone in real life.

    • 9 May, 2012 1:10 pm

      Ah yes, that’s something I hadn’t thought of, but I can imagine it’s a real issue when you’re writing fiction set in the real world. You don’t want to accidentally name your murder victim after an old boss (or maybe you do!), or someone you know, or even someone you’ve just seen in the news.

      I find some characters sort of name themselves, but others are more recalcitrant. It never seems to be connected to the personality of the character, either – it’s far more random than that.

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