What’s In a Name? Choosing Character Names

So, you have your plot. Now, you need the names of your characters. But which ones do you choose? There are millions of names already out there, not even considering the weird and wacky original names you could come up with in your semi-demented brain. Where do you even start?

As I have said on my blog before, no rule is perfect. I will be talking about ideas to get your brain going. I cannot simply tell you how to name your characters because there is nothing simple in naming people you invent. But perhaps some of these tips will get the cogs in your imagination turning to solve this ancient riddle: What’s in a Name?

Foreign/Historical Characters

When thinking of names, it is most important to look at setting. After all, why would an ancient Aztec princess be named Mary? It would not make sense. So, look at the era and the place in which your story is set. If your story is set in a modern era near where you live, coming up with names will be very easy. After all, you know the names around you.

However, how do you go about choosing names of a totally different culture separated by time and distance? There are several ways to go about it. If you have any foreign setting that isn’t common to America or Britain, I recommend starting with websites like Behindthename and Babynames. For example, if you are looking for Russian girl names, these websites will give you a list of names as well as the meaning.

If you believe the meaning behind a character’s name is important, these websites will be extremely helpful and it might narrow down your options. For example, if your character is a delicate Russian girl, you might name her Anfisa (meaning flower girl) or Katya (meaning pure). While I do not always limit my names to meanings, it is a good option to try.

For historical characters, these two websites may also be helpful. There are also multiple websites with generators which will actually generate characters’ names for you (such as Oobleck which will generate Victorian England names). You can find many of these websites merely by making queries on Google, Bing, or any search engine of your choice (though the results will vary slightly depending on the search engine).

Another way to find names is a bit harder. Go into any bookstore or library and pick up history books written about or during that time. These will be filled with names, some of which you can choose or redo (like taking the first name from one character and the surname from another). However, I advise against this both because it takes more time and because it means the names have already by used (especially if it is a notable book).

Though, while we are on the topic of other books, it is always a good idea if you come across a name you absolutely love while reading a book to write it down—it might come in useful later.

Naming Fantasy/Sci-Fi Characters

Naming fantasy characters can by similar to finding names for historical characters—that is, with website generators. However, with fantasy worlds, names are often strange sounding and foreign to names in our world. Of course, if it is urban fantasy, names are usually modern. However, if you have a story set on a foreign planet or in the future, you can pretty much just make up names.

That is to not to say there aren’t rules to making up names. Make sure to have variety. By this, I am referring to length, starting letter, and sound. Do not make all the names the same lengths; vary them between long, short, and medium length names. Instead of naming three characters James, Jane, and Jack, name them Demetrius, Mary, and Trent. Also, do not have the names sound similar as well, like Nora, Sarah, and Maria (all ending in the “ah” sound). These things are something to keep in mind when naming characters in order to help the readers easily differentiate characters.

Also, if you do make up your own names, especially if they are not spelled phonetically, do not expect your readers to pronounce them the same way you imagine them. And do not get carried away by making names incredibly, ridiculously long. Stick with Anya instead of Anyamanichity. I mean, you try to pronounce that. And if you do insist on giving your characters long names, make certain to give them nicknames which they are called most of the time.

Baby Naming Books

If you are not writing about a strange era or place, then you have more choices. Some might say too many choices. Look around us in America. There are millions of names, all with different origins. How do you choose one name set in a modern-type setting? I have several ways of narrowing it down for myself.

First, I stick with my previous comment of varying length, starting letter, and sound. This will help. You can also do searching on the web. Personally, I own several baby books with thousands of names, meant for prospective parents who are searching for the name of their baby. Well, so are you, your baby just happens to be all in your head…that sounded wrong.

Baby naming books are a great thing to have on hand to flip through if you know you want a name starting with an H or a boy’s name that’s long.

What Would You Name Your Baby? The Parent’s Choice

I think sometimes we authors forget that most names are given to the children by their parents or elders. So, do not attempt to pick a perfect name which will be how they describe themselves now. Instead, take a look at the parents. If the parents are traditional Chinese living in China, they would not name their baby James. However, if they were immigrants to America who wanted their baby’s name to fit in, they might choose that name.

This point does not apply, however, to characters whom have changed their name in later life (or use a pseudonym). However, in most cases an assassin who kills people on dark city streets would not be named Shadow unless it was a later name he chose for himself. So think about your character’s parents or those who had an opportunity to choose the baby’s name. What would they choose?

Don’t Stress Too Much

In Romeo & Juliet, the titular female character states,

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

She is saying that, even if a rose was named something else, its name would not detract from its sweet smell. I personally agree with this. I firmly believe too many writers stress about finding the perfect name for their character. They spend so much time on this meaningless pursuit that they indeed forget that it is the person’s character and portrayal which will shine off the pages, not merely their name.

I am not saying names are meaningless, but I think authors worry far too much about finding the perfect names for their characters. While names do hold some importance, they do not tell everything about a person nor should they. Names are a starting point, an identifying mark for a character. Nothing more. So don’t worry so much. Worry does no writer any good. I should know. I do it far too much.

What are your favorite way of picking out names? Any places you find names that are particularly indispensable? Let me know down in the comments. And, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

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