Names are important, especially in fiction. They need to be memorable. They need to stand out. They shouldn’t be boring or forgettable. But it’s not the easiest thing to do. Some names are overused, some names sound cheesy. What’s the best way to choose a name?
For main characters, they are just there when I create the concept. For others, I glance through name books and pick combinations that I like. Sometimes I work the name of an author from my bookshelf into secondary characters’ names.
A few names come unbidden through the ether and pop into my brain. Other names have been carefully sourced and researched based on some imagined criteria I’ve come up with – based on Celtic or Native American roots etc. Baby name websites can be handy, especially if they provide meanings and allow you to sort by derivation.
And… Some names come from stereo components.
Mostly they just come to me. The main characters, anyway. I’ve been told I should pick names with subtle meaning and clever references, which I do for the secondary characters. But the MCs always just show up with their names already figured out. When I do think about names, I often conclude I think about it too much and make a hash out of it.
I have the hardest time with character names! Once in a while they just come to me and I know beyond a doubt that I’ve plucked the character, name and all, from the universe. But most of the time I drive myself nuts with the decision.
I use a combination of the name’s meaning, its sound, and other connotations it may have from other uses.
I also sometimes use theme naming for characters associated with each other.
I’m really exact about character names. I spend hours researching meanings until I find just the right one. And no, not really. Names either come to me in the moment or I mash keys until one happens. I’ve also been known to turn to someone and say, “Give me a name” and there it is.
For me it actually depends on the individual stories. If I’m writing a drabble or a little flash fiction piece I’ll usually only use first names, and I’ll snatch those names at random from the long list of people I’ve met or worked with. I honestly won’t think about it too much; I’ll just pick the first name I think of that sounds okay.
With “Nowhere to Hide”, however, I was a lot pickier about my character names. Since it was my first horror novel, and I had every intention of it being published, I wanted to use the opportunity to pay homage to other horror names who have influenced me. My main character, for example, is Nancy King. “Nancy” is for the main character from the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie, and “King” is for, of course, Mr Stephen King.
With “The Other World” it was a much sillier process that brought my characters their names. For the purposes of a later plot point I definitely wanted my main character’s name to be Victoria, but I didn’t want to be calling her that all the time so I nicknamed her “Tori”. Since the first letter of her name matched mine I chose her last name from my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. Then, on a whim (since I’d already built her name, in a way, from my own) I named her love interest and best friend to match my husband and beset friend…thus Jacob was born from Jason and Kaima was born from Kelly. In retrospect it seems rather a childish way to name my characters, but I’ve grown into the names and love them now, so they’re here to stay.
I ask my wife. Or I ask my friends. Or I’ll just grab a name that I like. There is usually very little thought to it.
Starting in middle school, I kept a list of interesting-sounding names that I either thought up randomly or found elsewhere, and would tweak them until they became something that fit a character. As I built my story-world more, though, I started reverse-deriving some of the names to build the vocabulary in my fake language, and then branched out to defining naming-conventions for the various kingdoms and territories. So these days, I check the naming conventions first, and then the language dictionary, and tack something together from those — but most of my long-running characters have names from before that age, so might stand out a bit from the rest of the pack, who knows.
I use a generator for most of my names, usually the Quick Character Namer on Seventh Sanctum. I don’t put too much stock in picking the “perfect” name for a character, but I do need to know what to call a character before I can continue. I don’t want a repeat of the placeholder name I mentioned in the last Authors Answer.
They often jump out at me. Back in the day, my character names were not uncommonly the fourth or fifth round of a name changed from its original version. For instance, Ero’s name used to be Samore Edorelo (don’t ask), which then became Relo for short and then Ero – at one point, it was going to be Aeiro, but thank God that one didn’t stick.
Other times, it’s a process of elimination – often, when I’m working on a project with someone else. We bounce a series of names back and forth until we find something that fits the idea of the people we both have in mind.
It’s really that simple – and complicated. ;]
I use a variety of methods. Mostly, for my science fiction books, I search online for names depending on the country or culture the character is from. That’s the simplest method. But for main characters, I look for meaning. For Ariadne, the main character of the first book is a girl named Solona. I searched for names of various cultural backgrounds that mean “wise.” One that caught my eye was the Greek name Solona. And that’s how her name was chosen.
For fantasy, I’m likely to make things up for given names, but family names may be based on geography, birthplace, family history, jobs, or any other appropriate category. I have yet to create any names for fantasy, though.
How about you?
If you write, how do you choose names for your characters? Let us know in the comments below.