Tuesday, April 30, 2013

8 Points to Remember When Naming Your Characters


From the start, it may seem that choosing a name for your character is really easy.  You like a name and so that’s the one you’re going to use. That’s settled. Now on to more important things like procrastination! Well hold on for just a moment.  Have you considered if that name you have fallen in love with makes sense for your character? For the setting? Or how about the meaning of the name?  Before you go willy-nilly in naming your characters, there are a few important points to remember.  

 1. Is the Name Appropriate in the Setting?

 Before I continue any further remember that setting includes not only the physical place but the time period as well.  Is the name you have decided on appropriate for the country your story takes place in?  How about the time period?  The name could be more old fashion or too trendy for the setting you have decided on. 
If the character is an American then you can go here Social Security Name Popularity List and search by years. And this site allows you to search through decades: http://www.sheknows.com/baby-names/rankings/decade

If your character is British then you can check out this site http://www.britishbabynames.com/blog/links-to-name-data.html, which lists names from 1880 to present day.

**Remember that this really only applies to stories that are based in the real world.  If you have a science fiction or fantasy novel and you are creating an entirely new world then these rules can be thrown out the window.  

2. Is the Name Appropriate for the Character?

Is the character an adult? Does he have a name appropriate for the time period in which he was born?  If the character is an American then you can go here Social Security Name Popularity List and search by years.  Don’t make the mistake of naming him/her something that is currently trendy, when your character was born decades ago.

Is your character of a different ethnicity?  Is the name ethnically appropriate?  There are many baby name sites that will allow you to search for names according to ethnicities and genders.   

For example:

      3. A Name Can Determine Who a Person Is

Ever since I read about the brothers Cain and Able in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I have been obsessed with the idea that a name can determine who a person is.  Naming a character a certain name due to a meaning can be a fun Easter egg for your readers to discover.  But remember that your readers are smart so don't make it obvious (e.g. Bella Swan).  Meanings for names can be literal or implied. 

For literal meanings of names there are sites like these:
http://www.behindthename.com/

For implied meanings of names, think about East of Eden where two brothers' lives mirrored the lives of two biblical brothers.  Perhaps the character’s story that you have thought of reminds you of a figure from mythology:

Or from the Bible:

Or literature:

      4. No Country for Interesting Names (well at least not for everybody)

Unless you have made up a completely new world then you have to accept the fact that some people will have boring names!  This doesn’t mean that you have to name background characters Jane Doe or John Smith.  But you can’t name every single person a unique, interesting name.  Find a good balance. There are plenty of common names that may have fallen out of vogue recently (and therefore feel fresh).  

5. A Place and Time for Nicknames

If other characters are familiar with a particular character try to think of a nickname derivative of the name or completely new one all together.  For example, did you know that the old fashioned nickname for Sarah is Sally? Or think of how down south people like to give others two names as a term of endearment (e.g. Sarah Elizabeth becomes Sarah-Beth).

Here’s a site that list nicknames for common names:

Here’s a place you can look up old-fashioned nicknames:

And remember that a nickname can have nothing to do with the actual name itself (e.g. Slim or Little John).  Maybe the nickname comes from an interesting story in your character’s past.

6. Pronunciation. Think about it.

Pronunciation is extremely important for a reader.   The first time I read Harry Potter; I had no idea how to pronounce Hermione and ended up pronouncing it Her-mine.  If someone doesn’t know how to properly pronounce the name then they will pronounce it however they want or skip over the name all together. 
Remember that the pronunciation must follow the normal conventions of grammar. I had a friend once that wanted to name her daughter Magdalene and have everyone pronounce it Madeleine, “the G will be silent”…yeah that’s just not going to happen.  If you do have unexpected pronunciations then try to subtly work it into the story, a short time after the character is introduced to assist the reader.

If you are set on the character having a difficult name to pronounce then think about giving them a nickname (see #5). 

7. The World is Unpredictable

Remember people in the real world are weird and unpredictable. I once met a person with the last name of Moneymaker (that was her legal and legitimate surname).  If you have your heart set on a particular name then go for it.  My rule of thumb is that if your story is set in the real world and the name you have decided on is bizarre, then explain why.  Make an interesting story or mystery around it and this will help to give your characters depth too. Which brings us to the most important point in naming your character…

      8. Know Your Characters!!!

Who is this person? What is their back story?  Perhaps they received their name as a namesake.  Then what is the story behind that? If the personality and the name don't match up then make it point of contention.  Remember that names make an impression and you want readers to remember that name.