Thursday, March 10, 2011

name your baby--er--character

I am obsessed with names. Especially character names. Show me your query, and I will probably become fixated on a character name in it and raise some issue that no one has ever shown any concern over before. When selecting my own character names, I go through a whole process. It's actually a lot of fun for me. Here's what I do:
  • Decide on a word or words that best describes the character. Recently, for instance, I needed to find a new name for a character who I would describe as hard, bitter, inflexible. 
  • Go to a couple of my favorite name sites, such as this one or this one, and do meaning searches on the words I chose, and some synonyms. Now often, especially for negative attributes, this doesn't go very far (although Mary means "bitter"--did you know that?).
  • Go to BabelFish and run the words through various language translations. I settled on "Felsen" for my inflexible character's last name. It means "rock" in German. I'm really hoping it means "rock" as in "stone" and not as in this. But in the end, it doesn't matter--it just has to mean "rock" to me. I don't expect anyone else to look up the meanings of all of my names. And since sometimes I tweak the spellings of them to suit my needs, it would probably be an exercise in frustration for anyone to try.
  • Sometimes, if the above steps don't come through, I'll go on to search the names of gods and goddesses, mythological creatures, historical figures, etc., to find a name that resonates.
A few things to consider when naming a character:
  • Make sure none of your characters' names are similar. This is a rookie mistake. A lot of people do it unconsciously--they like the sound of certain vowels and consonants in a name, and without realizing it, they use them over and over. Honestly, I think Tolkien did it with Arwen and Eowyn, among others. I bet he had all sorts of justifications for it in his world-building. In the end, it's still a lot harder than it needs to be to discuss who you think Aragorn should end up with.
  • Look at their ethnicity and ancestry. If you are going to name a character Billy Gambini, have a reason. Even if only you know the reason. 
  • Consider whether the name sounds like anything unfortunate. Unless you chose it to be funny. And trust me, folks, I've seen some unfortunate character names out there--this is the sort of thing I notice.
  • Avoid choosing unusual names unless they fit with your genre. If you have a character named Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, they'd better be the headmaster of Hogwarts.
  • Likewise, make sure the name is easy to pronounce, even if your character is an alien from a culture where they click their beaks when they speak. Please, for the love of Groosalugg, avoid apostrophes.
That's all I've got for now, although I suspect I'll think of five more points and come back to edit this post again later.

What process do you use to name your characters?


  1. I really enjoyed this post. It's clear, engaging, useful, and simple to apply. I'm glad I found your blog, and I'll be back.

    In my own area, I'm very particular about the names I choose. I find, too, that the names need to help convey the persona or the ambience (if it's, say, an establishment). As I write poems quite often, I pay a lot of attention just to the lyric and rhythmic nature of the name too; a name that doesn't fit is a distraction, and a small distraction can undo a great deal of work. I figure that, if a reader stops to wonder why a name was chosen, there had better be an explanation or an exposition forthcoming. Otherwise, it's time to find a different name.

    Conversely, sometimes it seems that the name is asked to do the storyteller's work; a good name is nice, but it's not enough. So I'm bemused when it seems more time is spent on the name than on the story.

    Too late to make a long story short, clearly... my apologies. But that's what happens when you write an engaging post!

  2. Thanks for your comment, poetinahat! I hadn't even considered the impact of a name in poetry. It makes me consider to what extend the sound of a name matters in the fiction I write, as well. Something I'll be pondering today!