Character Creation: What’s in a name?

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Characters are one of the defining features that make a novel memorable, and help it stand out from others in the same genre.

As writers, we need to capture the reader’s attention, engage their emotions, and hook them into the tale. We need to create a protagonist that one can emphasize with, or at the very least, feel a connection to.

Do they need to be likeable? No!
Do they need to feel real? Yes!

We will work our way through a series of blog posts on how one can create a character, flesh them out, and bring them to life on the page. One important thing to note though, is the Iceberg Principal. Essentially, whilst you – as the writer – needs to know as much about the character as you feasibly can, the reader only needs to see what is relevant to the story – the tip of the iceberg.

We will begin with names. Now, you may like to leave the naming of your character until you know them a little better, in which case, refer back to this post at a later date, but I think we can all agree that, in most stories*, names are important. And names are more than just “something to call your character by”.

Names can also indicate:

  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Social status
  • Personality

There are numerous things to consider when choosing names for your characters, and these will vary according to genre. For a historical novel, for example, you will wish to choose names relevant or typical to that period, a modern name or non-traditional spelling will really stand out.  Also, many readers will make a subconscious connection between a name and personality; this can be fun to play with – for example, we have Bill the vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse series – but certain names will generally have specific connotations. This may, of course, vary depending on who is reading the book, and is culture dependent.

There are numerous resources for names, here are a few:

  • baby name books: These generally contain the name’s origin and meaning, and thus can be used to subtly reference the character’s personality.
  • baby name websites: as above, only digital.
  • people you know, or names you overhear. Carry a notebook, note them down. (Be wary of using the names of friends or family though, as they may grow suspicious of your character’s origin).
  • the phone book: great for surnames!
  • name generator websites: Google it, there are hundreds!

If you are wanting non-traditional names, say for example you are writing speculative fiction, or for non-human characters, then you can have some fun creating your own names:

  • portmanteaus are always fun: Sunstar, Rainflower, Goldenleaf.
  • look into nature: plants, animals, and minerals often have appealing names that can say a lot about a character (Hemlock for example, is not likely to be someone cute and cuddly).
  • colours: ie: Cerulean, Cyan, Magenta, Scarlet, Sable.
  • mythology and folklore
  • combine together pleasantly sounding syllables (I’d recommend no more than 3  syllables).

Make sure you say your character’s name out loud, to make sure that it doesn’t clash with the character’s intended personality (Annaki, for example, is likely to cause chaos). If you are writing a multi-racial specfic adventure, you will find it extremely helpful to base each different race’s naming patterns on the same distinct origin. That way the reader will be able to immediately determine if they’re a dwarf, an elf, or a specific alien species. Consistency is important.

Some things to look out for:

  • character names all beginning with the same letter: this isn’t too confusing but can look lazy.
  • similar sounding names: you probably don’t want a Raina and a Riana in your story. Either you or the reader will get the two confused!
  • characters with the same name: this is fairly common in real life, but in stories it’s best avoided to prevent confusion.
  • unpronounceable or long, complex names. For both the reader’s sake and yours – since you will probably mis-spell them at least once – I’d recommend keeping these to a minimum, or for peripheral characters.
  • avoid subconsciously using the name of someone famous or infamous, or someone else’s character. Google it first!

It can be very useful to create lists of names, especially if you are writing in a world with specific naming technique (ie: all from the same cultural origin), so when you need to give the name of a peripheral character you can refer to the list, rather than spend 20 minutes trying to find something appropriate, which will stall your writing.

* there are always exceptions to the rule: in a first-person narrative one can fairly easily avoid ever naming the main protagonist, and you are unlikely to use them in a second-person narrative, and there are of course several famous authors that have never given their characters a unique moniker (ie: The Road by Cormac McCarthy). But you’ll generally find it easier if you have something to call your characters, trust me.

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