“Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
“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
Be 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!
Match 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”.
Choose 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.
Use 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!
Make 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
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.
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…
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!
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.
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!
How do you choose names for your characters? What naming tips and tricks do you find useful and/or important?