Dawned on Me: What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? Well, quite a bit. Think about some of your favorite characters’ traits, and then think about their names. How well do those names suit them? Would John McClane by another name still be Bruce Willis? How about Neo, would he be the same hacker/savior?  Or Harry Potter – can you imagine the young wizard by another name?

Names are important. For quite some time, I believed that character names honestly had no bearing on the character him or herself, despite what others told me. I was so firmly convinced that if a character was compelling, it didn’t matter whether she was Ida Jane or Mary Sue – the power of the name came from the character herself, not the other way around. As I’ve gained more experience, I’ve been won over, at least in part. I still think that a strong character can have a mediocre name and work, but a great character name will accentuate and give the character even more of a “glow”. In other words, I have seen the light.

A good character name can strongly suggest a primary value, establishing a core essence for your character. As I said above, it may not be the most important factor for your character, but it is certainly an effective tool to lend you a hand. I’m not here to offer much more of a list of character names than the ones above, but I’m sure you can come up with your own list in your head right this minute, and it wouldn’t be too hard to sort out why those names are classics and so evocative of their characters. . No, instead, I’m here to offer some general guidelines and maybe answer the question of where to get ideas for names.

Once I realized the wisdom of the advice that I had ignored for so many years, I decided to hit up a few different writing resources online, distilling their advice into a few general rules of thumb that I continue to follow. Here they are:

  1. Reflect the values. As I mentioned above, examine the character that you’re creating and either try to figure out some defining traits or what the character represents within the plot, then see if you can sneak some of those words into the name, at least by phonetic resemblance.
  2. Make the name age-appropriate. Seriously. This is mentioned in one of the links above, from Baby Names, and I can’t possibly stress it enough. To quote: “Decide the age of your character and then calculate the year your character was born. If your character was born in the U.S., browse the Social Security Name Popularity List for that year. You will also want to take into account the character’s ethnic background and the ethnic background of his/her parents.” Very important bit of advice here; would a woman born in the 1990s actually be named Ida Jane? Pretty unlikely, and it strains the credibility of your story.
  3. Avoid names that end in “S”. Lots’s of problems’s this way.
  4. Combine common names and unusual names. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Common first name, unusual last name (Indiana Jones, Freddy Mercury – he counts!). Or vice versa.
  5. Avoid names that sound the same. Think about how confusing it would be to have a Dana, Dan, David, and Drew all in one story. Diversifying sounds and letters simplifies what may already be a difficult task of differentiating characters.
  6. Avoid names that are too long, or find a way to shorten them. Another self-explanatory one, and one that I’ve used recently. Entanglements features a character named Samartha. Great name, I think, has deep significance for who he is, but it’s a mouthful. He becomes Sam pretty quickly among the other characters. There is another character named Samyaza, and to avoid confusion, he is simply referred to as “The Supervisor” and never by name, which fits given his stature in the group.
  7. Avoid already-prominent names. Rhett, Scarlett, Barack, Oprah. You get the picture.

So, with those guidelines in mind, where can you find the best names? The Social Security Popularity list is a good starting point. There are also dedicated online sites for Baby Names, such as Baby Names.com and  Baby Names World.  Language is a Virus also offers a great name database, and Seventh Sanctum and Wizards.com offer random name generators. You can also find great resources for the meanings of names, such as Name Meanings.com and Meaning-of-names.com.

We’ve come a long way from the days when all you had to rely on was a book of character names from Writers Digest and maybe a baby name book or two (both of which I relied upon in the mid-to-late 90s). There are a lot of options out there, and methods that you can use.

Oh, and one other tip. Be sure to pronounce your character’s name out loud before you settle on it, especially if it’s a fantasy name. That way you can avoid creating some of the unintentionally hilarious greats like Zap Rowsdower, Beatrix Kiddo, and Elijah Kalgan. I mean, unless you want to be the butt of jokes. Then go crazy.

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  1. The last tip is a good one. Sometimes a name sounds great in your head, then you start reading it aloud … and well, you need a different name.

  2. Great tips. Names took me longer than I expected when writing my WiP. I even listed them all out alphabetically to ensure none of them started with the same letter, or sounded the same, and sounded ‘right’! My MC’s name changed like three times!

  3. A lot of these rules don’t apply to the fantasy genre (except maye urban fantasy). Definitely not high fantasy anyway, where all the names are usually made up. But there are still rules or guidelines of a type. It helps if the antagonist has a name that evokes images of dread, and the protagonist should have a strong name. I have just decided to change the name of the love interest of one of my protagonists after deciding I don’t like it, so I’m particular about the fact the name should ‘feel’ right.

    I admit I am a serial offender in respect of the rule on not starting character names with the same letter. I have a love affair with the letter ‘A’. Don’t know why. But hey, I write high fantasy. The Wheel of Time has a cast of characters numbering more than 100. Some of them have to start with the same letter. Hopefully my readers can keep up with two As in the same novel. Especially when one is a man and one is a woman.

    I also read somewhere that hard consonants make stronger names than soft consonants.

  4. Pussy Galore! 🙂

  5. The comment above was me!

  6. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday – 13 October, 2011 « The Author Chronicles

  7. Carol the Dabbler

    Thanks for all the good pointers!

    Another no-no that I’ve seen violated in print more than once: Even if (heck, especially if) your character is based on a real-world person, resist the temptation to give the character a name based on the real person’s name. Regardless of how cleverly you disguise the name, people WILL recognize it, and will be jolted out of their suspension of disbelief. In other words, it’s distracting to someone who’s just trying to enjoy the ride.

    Example: A professionally-published Star Trek novel had a character named Greg Collier (or maybe it was Barney Morris). The instant I read the name, before the character had even walked on stage as it were, I knew he’d be a tall, good-looking black guy, because the name was so obviously based on the Mission: Impossible character Barney Collier, played by Greg Morris.

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