Character Development: A Rose By Any Other Name

A Rose By Any Other Name

Four Tips for Naming Your Characters

May 17, 2018

 

Some of us struggle with finding names for characters.

As I write (on average) 6 to 10 books a year, I have to come up with a lot of names. And if I'm not careful, I'll repeat myself, choosing names that I'm most fond of. But names are more than simply labels slapped on a character while you're writing. A name should bring something more to the party.

Long ago, characters were always named something that tied the character to the story. Snow White (for example) had white skin, but she also had ebony hair and she yet wasn't called Ebony Black. The choice of Snow White was to evoke that perfect moment of fallen snow before it gets trampled, muddied, and shoveled. It's the untainted quality that the name is meant to evoke. Now, today, we rarely choose a name that is quite so blatant, but that doesn't mean names should simply be pinned on based on something we found on a baby name list (though there's a good one here: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/decades/).

Here are four tips to finding the right name for your characters.

Think about what the name means.

This can include the original meaning of the name and what language and region first used it. But consider also what the name means to you. Don't allow the correct meaning of the name to push you toward a choice that conflicts with the meaning the name carries for you. The name Liam, for instance, means strong-willed warrior and protector. Plus, the name may bring to mind Liam Neeson who plays tough guys in movies. So the combination of what the name means (in terms of origin) marries well to what it means to me when I think about it. But not every name works quite so well. Consider the name Lionel. It literally means "like a lion" so would be a good name for a brave, strong character. Well, except that it always makes me think of a rather uptight clerk who talks through his nose and wears tiny pince-nez glasses. So my (personal) inner Lionel doesn't match the name's meaning, and I'm always going to be drawn away by my inner meaning. The ideal naming situation is when the real meaning matches your inner meaning. But if you have to choose, I'd always go with my inner meaning as a conflict in my head is going to affect how smoothly I create and write for the character.

Think about how a name sounds.
If your book is very successful, you might have to read this name out loud. Do it now. Know how it sounds. Consider also how well it might travel. For instance, we all know now how to pronounce the name Hermione now, but when Harry Potter first came out, a league of readers were sounding it out in their heads in very strange ways. And that was causing a tiny trip every time they hit her name in the book. Did it hurt the runaway success of Harry Potter? Certainly not. But it made things a little harder for the reader. Difficult names become even more of a problem in picture books. A name that parents struggle with is going to belong to a book they don't want to read to a sleepy child.

Consider also how much each character's name sounds like the other character's names. This adds an extra level of confusion for a reader when they're just getting to know your book and they have to constantly sort out which woman is Annie and which one is Alice.

Don't let your childhood eclipse your time period.

Names that were popular when you were in elementary school are unlikely to be common in school right now. If you're naming kindergarten children in your picture book names like Susan or Brenda or Sally, you have a problem. Those names simply aren't being attached to children in that age group today and will make your story feel dated. Thankfully, this is one of the easier things to avoid. Check out the baby name link I gave you above. It comes from the Social Security office and actually lists popular baby names by decade. So whether you're looking for the perfect name for kids today or the perfect names for children in your historical novel set in the 1930s, that link can help.

Don't name after real people.
If you named your villain "George Mint" and you get a phone call from the bully you haven't thought about in years (who just happened to be named George Mint), you could be in actual, legal trouble. Your subconscious will play tricks on you if you're not careful and many of the strong feelings you associate with names, may come from people in your past who held the name, even when your conscious mind has forgotten them. There's an old joke about annoying writers. If you do it, they'll turn you into characters (and if they're mystery novelists, they'll then kill the character). Basing elements of a character on real humans is fine, but make sure you don't tag that character with a real person's name. You can end up in legal hot water you simply don't need.

So as you name your characters, consider meaning, sound, time period, and your personal legal safety. Oh, and by the way, use the same care when you choose your character's surname. A Google search can turn up popular surnames from specific regions (which can help you in naming a Georgia character with a name that sounds legitimately Southern), and can help you know the meaning behind surnames as well. Not that you even have to use real surnames. Made up surnames can be fun too. Just be sure it reads true to the character and is pronounceable. (Really, fantasy writers, you're going to have to read those names aloud eventually. Don't make yourself sorry.) We're all helping our characters become part of the cultural fabric of our world, so it's worth the time to name them right.


ICL After School Short Story Contest

Try out your new naming ideas in the current ICL writing contest:

Write a short story suitable for a magazine aimed at 6-9 year-olds that takes place at an after school activity. Deadline is June 30, 2018. More details HERE.

Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.

Comments

Debby Jones
June 6, 2018

Great advice. I want my character to be believable and acceptable, naming is important. Thanks! After finishing a story, I went back and changed the main character's name. I knew that needed to be done.

Margaret Wilhelm
June 2, 2018

As always, very helpful-thanks.

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Great Read!

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