The topic of names could cover quite a wide variety of areas, such as naming babies, place names, collective names of animal groups, or translations of names into languages such as Elvish or Runes; but I’d like to focus on the naming of characters for fiction writers.
Choosing character names can be fairly straightforward if you’re writing contemporary fiction; having said that, be sure to choose names that are not too similar from one character to the next. Unless there is a reason for close names, such as Sandy and Brandi for twins, the names need to stand apart to help readers keep straight who’s who, especially if there are multiple characters in a scene. In Lord of the Rings, however, JRR Tolkien uses names to comical effect when naming the dwarves: Bifur, Bofur & Bombur; Dori, Nori & Ori; Kili & Fili; Balin & Dwalin; Gloin & Oin; only Thorin stands out as leader and king with a unique name.
When choosing names for modern characters, consider their place, time and age: If you’re writing a grandfatherly character, he can have a name that was popular in the ‘30s or ‘40s; but if your character is in their 20s, then don’t name them Mildred or Frank. If you are writing children’s fiction, keep the names modern and simple to pronounce when reading aloud.
If you’re writing historical fiction, consider the era and country in which you’ve set your characters. For my 18th century trilogy, I compiled a list of names from parish records in southern England from the early-to-mid 18th century, and then condensed it down according to frequency; that gave me a list of the top 20 male names and top 20 females names from which to choose. Back then, children could only be christened with Christian names approved of by the church; names of kings and queens were popular, such as James, William, Charles, Anne, Charlotte, or Elizabeth. Biblical names from the New Testament such as Timothy or Mary were also popular, but Old Testament names, such as Jacob or Rachel, were only given to Jewish children. If you’re setting your story in the ancient Middle East, then find out what names were common then and there; just make sure that whatever you name your characters, they’re easy to read. Combinations of consonants that are difficult to read will be skipped over – a pity, if your main character is saddled with a forgettable name, such as Cthulhu (Lovecraft), or Tylwyth or Tleilax (Dune). In my 18th century trilogy, I also had a few characters’ names which emphasized their general character: Mrs Stacklesprat was a prickly, withered, gossiping, sour woman, while Mrs Huddlepoke was a cuddly, motherly, soft & jolly woman.
For Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, names can be drawn from sources such as planets, galaxies or stars (Andromeda, Galaxus, Draco), or objects such as trees or flowers, or natural occurrences (Vortex, Sparkle, Wave, etc.)
There are so many resources available for choosing names these days: Online you’ll find dozens of sites for baby names and what they mean; a great place to find names is in film credits – I watch those with pen in hand, and when I find an interesting first or last name, I jot them down; you can combine them randomly and come up with some great fictional names.
Things to consider when choosing your names:
- Culture: Don’t assume a name is Japanese when it might be Chinese – research!
- Era: Don’t choose a modern name for a character set in the 1920’s, and vice versa.
- Age of character: Give age-appropriate names to each character, especially for modern fiction.
- Combinations with other characters’ names: Unless you’re going for the comical effect of JRR Tolkien and have the language chops to carry it off, choose names that differ from the others in your story.
- Occupation: Don’t name your murderer Fluffy…
- Ensure it’s fictional: Don’t name a character and publish your book, only to find out it’s a real name (unless it’s John Doe – then I’d say, go back to the drawing board with choosing a good name)! Google it to see if it exists…
- Be cautious: If a character is closely based on someone you know, choose a name unrelated to your (soon-to-be-ex) friend or relative…! Also, there are certain names that are taboo due to historical events; I’d never recommend naming your character Adolf, or Hitler, or Stalin.
- Personality: If your character is a sturdy, reliable, powerful personality, don’t give them a wimpy name! And if a character is a wimp by nature, don’t give them a powerful-sounding name – unless they’re going to grow into the name over the arc of the story.
- Meaning: A name’s meaning might have bearing on your character; it could also add a double meaning. In the story I’m currently writing, a character is called Janus; this was the name of a Roman god who was two-faced – one looking to the past and the other to the future; it is also the name of one of Saturn’s moons. As the story is Science Fiction, either meaning applies to my character.
I hope these thoughts help you on your way to choosing memorable character names for your own projects. Whatever you do, keep writing!
8 responses to “What’s in a Name?”
Wonderful advice. Thanks. What do you think of names which are full-on puns? Like pretty much all of Harry Potter.
Thanks! For me, whether or not the pun works depends on the genre and the intention. If it works, it’s a great way to add another layer of entertainment for the insightful reader. I’ve never read any of the HP books, so I couldn’t comment on that, specifically…
Good advice! Names are important!
Thanks! I agree. 🙂
Names are one of my favorite things about writing. I have a new character in the novel I’m writing with tried and true characters: Joshua Punch. I love walking in graveyards with a notebook. It’s become a hobby. It’s fun learning the history of a surname. But then, I’m a name nerd. When I’m creating a name for a story, the sound and texture of it are my guides. Often, it will help me design the character.
I agree; sounds and textures make or break a name for me. And I love graveyards, too! You can learn a lot about a place, time and culture in such places.
I love naming characters there’s just SO much to think about and when you find that perfect name that just fits it’s a brilliant feeling.
I agree! Once you’ve found the right one, another name is simply not an option – the character has claimed it as their own.