June 28, 2009

Naming Your Fictional Characters

Much like parents have trouble finding a name for their children, authors often hit a wall in choosing names for their characters. I've been part of the naming process for several fictional characters, and it's not easy. Sometimes the quest for finding a perfect name goes on too long, delaying the story, or a "substitute" name is used in the meantime.

But I believe once you have a name that fits the character you are writing about, fully developing and understanding that character will be easier.

I recommend you choose names while you are in the process of outlining your story—basically before the "real" writing has begun in earnest. Here are some tips and things to consider when choosing your characters' names.

Meaning
One way to help you establish a connection to the character you are creating is to choose a name based on meaning. The reader won't necessarily know the meaning of your character's name, but this is a great way to inspire choices and give readers an interesting factoid to discover. You can read about how Shakespeare used this technique here. There are several tools you can use to look at names according to meaning, and one is the Babynames.com advanced search.

Pronunciation
It is usually best to choose a name that is easy to phonetically pronounce. I'm sure you can think of times when you read a word or name to have a different sound than the author intended. Once a reader gets to know a character it can be disappointing to discover that Hermione from Harry Potter, for example, was not the name you thought it was. Many readers did in fact think this name was pronounced HER-mee-own until the movie was released, revealing the correct pronunciation to be her-MY-oh-nee.

There are ways around this. Authors could include a pronunciation guide at the beginning of the novel or on an author website. You may be able to include the pronunciation in the story itself, perhaps when a character is being introduced to someone who mispronounces the name. Doing this will require some skill to avoid an obvious or awkward moment, however.

Quality of Sound
Many times an author will know a name just "sounds" right, often because the letters convey the quality of the character somehow. This may look like using:
  • hard consonants and grating sounds for a villain or disliked character.
  • names that roll off the tongue for protagonists.
  • unusual names for characters who are especially unique or had unique parents.
  • lilting, airy sounds for beautiful or magical characters.

Location and Time Period
I feel that this is more important than all of the above. If your story is set in a real place and/or time, your characters' names should reflect that. If you are writing a historical novel, pay attention to period names as you conduct your research. Your authority and believability will increase with accurate and appropriate character names.

Consider the following novels, which were written in a different time than the story is set.
  • Gone with the Wind, published in 1936, set in Southern U.S. in 1861.
    Characters include Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, Bonnie, Emmie, etc.

  • Outlander, published in 1991, set in several different time periods.
    Characters include Claire, from the 1940s; Frank, from the 1940s; James, from the 18th century; Callum, from Scotland in the 1740s, etc.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, set in 1933.
    Characters include Jean Louise (Scout), Atticus, Miss Maudie, Calpurnia, Mayella, etc.

If your story is set in a fictional world, you have several options. You can:
  • create unique names that fit in with the world you have invented.
    Example: Eragon (dragon with an "e"), Ra'zac, Solembum, from Eragon

  • use existing names, but spell them slightly differently or combine existing names. This will help your readers keep your characters straight and also help with pronunciation.
    Example: Mat Cauthon from the Wheel of Time series

  • use common existing names, keeping the spelling traditional.
    Example: Luke Skywalker of Star Wars

  • use existing but unique names. This is often done with names that have Gaelic or German roots.
    Example: Shea of the Sword of Shannara series
Many fantasy authors use a combination of all of these options in their stories.

Ethnicity
Of course, you will want to consider each character's ethnicity when picking out names. This will help your reader understand the character's background and culture. You can find many books that list names according to origin, or you can search babynames.com by origin here.

Don't Distract or Confuse the Reader
One thing I hate as a reader is encountering several characters in a book that have similar names. Make sure your main characters' names start with different letters and sound distinct from one another. You don't want your reader to have to go back and locate the introduction of a character to keep them straight. It's an easy trap to fall into, because everyone has names that they gravitate toward and those names often share similarities.

Another problem is creating characters that have names that stand out a little too much. Make sure your name isn't laughable, too over-the-top, too bizarre, or too obvious. There are some exceptions to this principle, but it has to be done well. Generally, you don't want your reader getting hung-up on your name choices. The focus should be on your story.

Check Your Choices
Once you have ideas for your characters' names, try the following.
  • Say your characters' names out loud to ensure you like the flow and sound.

  • Research each name, if you haven't already, to make sure the origin and meaning don't conflict with the character.

  • Write down your main characters' names and give it to a friend to read out loud. This will help you determine whether the names are easy enough to pronounce.

  • Do an internet search or mental check to make sure you haven't accidentally used a name from another book.

Recommended Reading
The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook This trusted resource lists names according to meaning and country of origin.
Nameisms Name Lists These lists include different time periods and unique categories to inspire you.

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