The delicate art of naming characters

 

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“Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
—Dale Carnegie

 

“Oh my god!” my dad shrieked to my mum. “Why is our fifteen-year-old daughter looking at baby name websites?!” Eight years later, I still have vivid memories of that day…and that conversation. I know I probably gave poor old Dad a heart attack, but really it served him right for trying to peer over my shoulder while I was doing research for a story.

 

I have a bit of an obsession with names. I really do. But can you blame me? I’m a writer, and as all writers know, the art of choosing names for your characters is a delicate matter. It’s important stuff. We want our characters to have names that are memorable, that are meaningful, that are iconic and representative of the story we’re trying to tell.

 

That’s where this post comes in. In my dozens, if not hundreds, of hours spent researching names and creating new ones, I’ve discovered a trick or two. So today I’d like to share with you the key methods I use when selecting names for my characters, and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. If you have a moment, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the delicate art of naming characters!

 

 

Five ways to select character names

 

1Be a thief

Wait—what? Yes, you heard me right. Be a thief. Steal names from the world around you. Steal names from your family, pilfer names from your friends. Snatch the name from that work colleague you really don’t like and kill them off in the second chapter. The real world is ripe with name-thieving opportunities, so take advantage of them. When I was seven and writing my very first “book” (learn more here), I was even brave(?) enough to even name a character after myself!

 

2Match the meaning to the personality

Name meanings are so much fun to research, and these days there are literally hundreds and thousands of name websites out there, just waiting for you to peruse them. My personal favourite is Behind the Name, which allows you to search by name, letter, origin, meaning and more. I love giving characters names that are significant to who the character is as a person. For example, Asa, one of the MCs in my WIP Old Blood, is a gentle young man who lives to help others, and whose name means “healer”.

 

3Choose different sounds and spellings

I usually shy away from using names with unusual sounds and spellings, yet sometimes it is not only appropriate, but necessary. Especially when it comes to strange and unusual characters. As an example here, I will use the name for the other MC in my novel Old Blood: Kael. Kael is a character who doesn’t really fit in anywhere, whose name has a different meaning or origin depending on where you look on the internet, and is listed as a variant of half a dozen other names. So it’s quite fitting: a strange and complex name for a strange and complex young man.

 

4Use Google Translate

I do this a lot. Seriously. While you should never rely on Google Translate for 100% accurate language translations, it is an awesome tool for naming characters and places. If I can’t find a name that matches the meaning I want, I type the meaning into Google Translate and go through every language available until I find a translation that could be used as a name. That doesn’t mean you have to stick to the exact translation, though. Feel free to change a letter here and there until you have the name you want!

 

5Make up something entirely new

As a writer, you have a creative licence to write whatever you want. That includes naming your characters whatever you want, so if you’re unable to find a name and/or meaning that suits you character, just make up something new! Smash together a couple of names, or combine a number of letters that are pleasing to your ears and eyes. Why not? I did this exact thing for Inva Lucevon Kyatt, the MC of the trilogy I spent my high school years writing (learn more here)!

 

 

Things to remember when choosing names

 

1

Authenticity

If you are writing a story that takes place in the primary world (i.e. the “real” world), ensure you select character names that remain true to the culture, location and era in which it is set. That is, you wouldn’t call your character Jack if he lives in ancient China, and you (probably) wouldn’t call your modern British character Borghildr. Just be mindful of time and place—it lends authenticity to your writing.

 

2

Genre

There are no hard and fast rules here, but it pays to take note of the genre when choosing character names. As a generalisation, there are a high proportion of original and made-up names in sci-fi and fantasy, whereas romance (contemporary or historical) uses more traditional, often  fancy or “flowery” names. Case in point: I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t be calling my romance hero Obi-Wan Kenobi…

 

3

Pronunciation

You’ve probably heard this one before, but DON’T GIVE CHARACTERS NAMES THAT YOU CAN’T SAY ALOUD!! I suppose there’s an element of “each to his own” here, but little pisses me off more than having to skip over a character’s name when I’m reading because I can’t for the life of me figure out how to say it…even in my head. If you absolutely have to give a character a long and/or complicated name, then consider (A) giving them a nickname, or (B) including a pronunciation guide!

 

 

4

Similarities

Try to avoid giving characters within the same story similar names, or assigning several names that begin with the same letter. This often leads to confusion. We’ve all been guilty of it at some point; I know that I have a habit of overusing names that begin with the letter “A”. The main exception to this rule is if the name similarities are important and/or significant to the story. For example, in the book Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the fact that both MCs are called Will Grayson is actually a plot device.

 

5

Lists

All writers know and understand that inspiration can strike at the strangest times. This is not only true of plot ideas, but naming ideas as well. To make sure you never forget a good character name when it clobbers you upside the head, and to ensure you have a wealth of name ideas to draw upon next time you start a new story, you should put together a list of potential character names. You can even group them by sound, or nationality, or time period, so you’re ready to hit the ground running!

 

 

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How do you choose names for your characters? What naming tips and tricks do you find useful and/or important?

 

 

RA_logo _backdrop-01_miniRebecca Alasdair

 

  One thought on “The delicate art of naming characters

  1. 05/04/2018 at 5:58 AM

    Obi-Wan Kenobi as a romance hero 😀
    Still laughing!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. MariaJohnWrites
    09/04/2018 at 12:50 AM

    haha love this! I think naming your characters is such an headache. It’s like what new parents go through except a 100 times worse in my opinion because you have to repeat this for 100s of characters

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ari
    09/04/2018 at 9:48 PM

    Great article. I love creating names, I make many up randomly from mixes of words or names. I also always scour movie credits, especially from foreign films and I have a massive list of names I’ve stolen from movie credits, to pick from 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • 09/04/2018 at 10:23 PM

      Thank you! Coming up with names is so much fun! Movie credits is a good one. I have several lists and spreadsheets worth of names I now have to find stories for…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. barbarabrutt
    11/04/2018 at 4:11 AM

    It’s funny that I happen upon your blog right when I’ve had a really good name introduce herself by name to me today. I love names. I think names are SO important. For real live people and for real live fiction characters!

    I think a name can set the tone of a person’s life. So I don’t think it’s good to name your child/character something that means….say “sickly” unless you’ve got a really good reason for it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 11/04/2018 at 8:59 AM

      What a funny coincidence! And you’re so right about the importance of names – both real and fictional. When it comes to character names, you really want something suitable for the character, the setting, the story, the genre, and this will remain memorable to readers long after they’ve put the book down. Thanks for commenting 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • barbarabrutt
        11/04/2018 at 9:40 PM

        Yessssssss! I’m not truly very good at remembering names of characters, though. And I know that when an author chooses a difficult-to-figure-out-how-to-pronounce name that I catch myself just reading the very first letter of the name and moving on. It’s always awkward when someone asks about the book, and I can’t remember the name and am afraid to pronounce it!

        Liked by 1 person

      • 12/04/2018 at 12:36 AM

        Ease of pronunciation is vitally important! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. 23/05/2018 at 12:02 AM

    Excellent post! Behind the Name is one of my favorite sites too. I’m definitely passionate about choosing the right names for characters and places. You reminded me of blog posts I did on names and pronunciation. Here are the links if you’d like to read them:
    https://andrewmcdowellauthor.com/2016/05/14/whats-in-a-name/
    https://andrewmcdowellauthor.com/2017/03/12/pronunciation/

    Liked by 1 person

    • 23/05/2018 at 12:22 AM

      Thanks! I love some of your discussion points on Irish/Scottish names! I have literally spent days scrolling through the internet researching them because (A) they seem to have really cool meanings and (B) their pronunciation is so bizarre! It’s quite remarkable some of the things you can learn when you start drilling down into the etymology, and there’s no better feeling that at last finding that PERFECT name for your character 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • 23/05/2018 at 12:31 AM

        You’re welcome. I’m glad you liked them, and finding that perfect name is definitely a wonderful feeling.

        Liked by 1 person

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