Does everyone have the same problems finding names for their characters? I usually agonize over choosing the right name, especially if it’s a character I intend to keep around for a long time. It takes time, effort, and a willingness to change the names if they ultimately don’t work or if something unforeseen happens to a name you’ve already chosen.
Choosing a name is an integral part of character construction for major characters and even for some minor characters. In real life names are often bestowed randomly (or relatively randomly, even if there is a family tradition involved in name giving. A name is not usually given because parents know the child’s innate character or because parents want the child to exhibit certain character traits, e.g. who names their kid Snidely?)
But as a writer, you know your characters (or you should) and you know what kind of people they are. So you want a name that fits and fits well. A name that shows who this character is or a name that conjures up feelings in readers.
It ain’t easy.
I suppose there are a few guidelines or tips one can generate and adhere to before finding just the right name for your character. And so I’ll follow common practice and list some of the things I consider before I start the search for a name.
What follows is in no particular order. But I’ll eventually make a longer, more detailed examination of considerations in naming characters.
Of course first and foremost is the sex and gender of the character. The world, at least the world in which I live, is a rich and diverse place. So determining a name based on the sexual nature of your character can be important or it can be nonchalant. There are usually reasons behind choosing a name, however. A female character with a male sounding name Sam (for Samantha) probably has a good reason for wanting to be called Sam. This goes to character construction.
Or, a character may have a gender neutral name for a number of reasons: they like to fool people before they meet them, they are transsexual/transgender/intersex characters, etc. There are a lot of other sex related rationales for names: frilly names for frilly characters, dandy-ish names for dandies, macho names, exciting names, bland names. But they all have a reason behind them.
It all depends on who your character is deep down.
Character traits is another factor that influences naming. Is your character tough, solid, able to take care of herself or himself? Then you won’t want to give them a name like Wilbur or Missy – unless you’re playing against type (not easy to pull off). At the same time, don’t be coy or cutsie by trying to signal something about the character with a too-obvious name that is a variation on some character trait. Let the character’s name be strong but draw that character so well the name you choose can ultimately become an adjective for the type of person he/she is. Scrooge was just a name before the Dickens character gave it definition. The name didn’t define the character.
Is your character long suffering, a heroic type, a deep down good guy, or a dyed in the wool evildoer? Again, this will influence your choice of name. But use caution in choosing something so obvious unless you’re going for a comic effect.
Character Occupation is yet another factor that will exert some influence on your choice of name. Is your character a cowboy or a waitress? Is she a detective of the comic variety or a kick-ass toughie? Accountants have boring names, right? Unless your accountant is a masked superhero by night. But even Batman’s name was Bruce.
What does your character do? What does he/she want to do? What are they capable of? Ask questions of the character and maybe a name will pop.
Culture, Ethnicity, etc. all contribute to a character’s name. It gets complicated but a bit of research (always fun to this librarian) will help. Every country, every culture has it’s own traditions. Pay attention to that especially if you are setting your story in another geographical location. There’s little more distracting than a character with a name that doesn’t fit the place he’s in. If you really happen to love a particular name, there’s probably an equivalent in other languages which will make you happy.
Surnames are also quite important. If you name a character with a surname that would never exist in his/her country, you’re asking for trouble.
If you set your story in the United States, you’ve got a smorgasbord of possibilities. There are ethnic groups, of course, and some stick to their traditions and name their children accordingly. But as a family lives in this country decade after decade, naming children becomes less a matter of sticking to tradition than of trying to fit in with the other kids in the neighborhood. Hence you get Tiffany Sambucca or the equivalent.
Surnames are important in the U.S. as well. We have lots of them. But once again, knowing your character will help you decide on this. Remember who that character is, what his/her background is, who the parents are, where in the US they are living, and more.
Genre will help you decide on names. Naming characters depends on the genre and type of story you’re writing. Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Historical, and any others including all the subdivisions of all of them, as well as crossover stories. Each has it’s conventions and requirements. Of course, you may be going for something that shakes the reader a little and decide to use a name that breaks with convention and tradition. Or you may have other motivations.
In Science Fiction and Fantasy, you often have the advantage of creating a wholly new world. Names can be anything you want. But exercise caution and restraint. I once named an evil character with such a long evil name that even I couldn’t pronounce it and I quickly tired of typing it. I shortened it and it was better and the character was just as evil as he was when he had a longer name.
In Science Fiction and Fantasy works, when you create that new world, remember that it comes with languages, naming conventions, cultural differences, and more. Ya gotta work all that out in advance. Then making up a name will be a piece of glurbduk… I mean, cake.
There are lots of conventions for naming in Science Fiction. Reading widely will help. Fantasy also has its naming practices, but they are broad and you can get a feel for the range by picking up a few books and checking out the names.
Mystery (depending on which branch of that you are following) often has sleuths with strong names. But not always. Miss Marple doesn’t sound like the type to come crashing through a door gun at the ready and spouting obscenities.
Writers often try to invent flashy names for their mystery heroes and sometimes this works. Sometimes it falls flat. A walk through a bookstore will show you what sounds good.
Romance might lead you to think that heroines need frilly names and heroes need tough as nails names. Not so. Be original and avoid naming your heroine Candy or something equally treacly. If you’re tempted to name your hero Rod or something in that vein, throw some cold water on your face and try again.
Historicals present other problems in naming characters. You must choose names that are right for the period and place in which your story is set. Accuracy is paramount. Name an ancient Roman Todd and your readers will laugh their togas off. There’s no way around this rule.
There are lots more considerations and next time I’ll tackle a few of those. The main thing to remember is to do your homework, hit the books and the Internet, and make reasoned decisions.