Naming Fictional Characters
This happens to me all the time. I discover a new story I'd like to tell and a character starts forming in my mind. Before long this character consumes me. I'm positive this new character is so strong that he or she will surely continue on through an entire series of stories. With the success of this series, Hollywood will come calling and the series will become a movie. The movie will be such a success that there will be a sequel. Because, you know, that's how these things work out.
But wait. How can this character do all these great things without a name? And it can't just be any name--it will have to be the best name ever. It will have to be EPIC.
How does one come up with the right name? Sometimes the name just seems to develop with the character in the writer's head. Most of the time, naming a character requires actual thought and study.
Here's a few things one can call upon when naming a new character:
- Friends, Family, Associates.
I think writers today have an advantage over those of the past. Could you imagine not having the Internet as a resource for names? I'm pretty sure that's how Nabokov came to the name, Humbert Humbert. Although I'm sure there was extensive thought given to even this name as his name was represented symbolically with the initials H.H..
John Steinbech named his main character "Tom Joad" in The Grapes of Wrath but didn't let the reader know this until the middle of the second chapter! And, he won a Nobel Prize for literature. If you think about it though, the name "Tom Joad" or simply "Joad" as he was mostly referred to in the story, was a kind of earthy, ugly, terse name that fit perfectly into the theme or feeling of the story. I mean, the entire story was rather earthy and ugly but in a good way.
If you've reached the limits of your imagination and still have not found a name that works, you've entered into the research phase. Do not despair finding yourself immediately in research. Most writer's end up here eventually. Some start in research and allow it to stoke the fire of imagination. Writer's of fantasy and science fiction often start with research.
Start with name lists.
The Internet is awash with name lists and name generators of all kinds. Many will refer you first to baby names. This can be productive especially if you are looking for a popular name or a historically correct name. These lists come in many forms and you can find names by popularity, time, ethnicity, or even meaning.
One name generator I particularly like comes from Seventh Sanctum. you can find it by clicking HERE.
Always remember to reapply your imagination when using a name generator. By way of example, I used a common name for a character in a current WIP in which the name itself becomes a small part of the story. The name I choose was Mark Stanley. I know this name seems very common and boring and that is the point. He is a supporting character and secret heartthrob of the main character. She makes fun of his name because it is so bland and also, it is like two first names. I know it's a small thing but in this case, the name actually adds something to the story, however minor.
The third item on the list above asks a writer to reference friends, family, and associates. I included this because all these may provide an excellent resource for names. When talking with friends, family, or associates, you can usually gain more insight into a particular name. These sources can not only provide you with unusual names but possibly a story that goes with the name. Oftentimes, a writer will pick up on the social or personality aspect of a name, which helps the naming of their fictional character. For instance, if you hear of someone name, say "star" and their is a story as to how that name was given or they have a name that seems to fit their personality, you may suddenly find yourself putting the pieces together for your character's name--even if turns out to be a different name then the name someone told you about.
"But wait," you say. "Are there any rules or lists I could follow to help with name creation?"
Sure. It seems everybody has a list nowadays.
Again, a simple search on the Internet will usually reveal dozens of articles on the subject. Here's a couple to get you started. I chose these two because they seem to be a good representation of the majority of rule sets.
- Elizabeth Sims 7 rules published by Writer's Digest.
- Andre Cruz's 6 creative ways to name characters.
Does your character's name fit their physical characteristics? If your character is extremely tall, why not give them a name that reminds the reader of height, For instance, the name given could simply rhyme with tall, or lanky, or any other derivative of height. The name could literally be a representation of a physical characteristic. For example, James Grant (known by pen name, Lee Child) developed the main character of his Reacher series from the character's physical trait of height. James is so tall that, when he was at the grocery store, others would ask him to "reach" things for them on high shelves. So, in developing his tall main character, he accentuated the height of Jack Reacher.
Another general rule is to name your character according to genre or type of story they occupy. If you are writing a thriller, mystery, or crime story, the character's name is normally limited by syllables. Normally either first or last name will be only one syllable and the other only two (like Jack Reacher.)
I published a story under a pen name titled Lexi's Run and ran into trouble with the supporting character because of his name. This supporting character was originally named Joseph Johnson because I wanted everyone in the story to call him JJ as his nickname. Nonetheless, the name nearly ruined the story because it just didn't sound right rolling off the tongue. On top of that, the name was stereotypical for my character and maybe even a little racist. I changed his name to Kyle Frost and expanded his personality around his last name of Frost. This new name really enhanced the story. Sure, these were very small enhancements but they brought depth and realism to his character.
If you are writing a romance, choose a name that is unique and flowery. Here it's okay to have a name with many syllables as long as it doesn't sound ridiculous when said aloud.
If you are writing fantasy (especially high fantasy or epic fantasy) your character's name can break all the rules of modern English, with limits, of course. Lindsay Buroker wrote a series called Emperor's Edge with a main character named Aramintha. Kind of catchy.
No matter what genre your story finds its home in, The one caveat to naming is that the name, no matter how outlandish, should remain believable for your character.
One final note about naming characters is that you should keep your secondary characters in mind as well. I know that some characters in stories are considered disposable, but some thought should go into naming them. For instance, if you spend valuable time and effort researching your main character to be sure the name fits the time period, ethnic background, race, mythical connections and every other conceivable consideration, don't bring your secondary character into the story with some bland and/or inappropriate name. You never know if that secondary character may warrant a grander role in a future story.
So, I hope this article has provided you with something to think about when naming fictional characters. Just remember that every rule you'll hear or read about naming characters can, and has been broken successfully. Nonetheless, a poorly named character can be a drag on the rest of the story.
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