A Character By Any Other Name

I love names. I’m fortunate in my day job to come across a lot of names and you wouldn’t believe some of the things people call their children! Even before you meet someone or speak to them for the first time, if you know their name you will probably already be imagining who that person is, what they look like and what they sound like. The name Doris might make you think of someone older, a sweet little old lady, perhaps. A name like Bobby might suggest someone young, a child maybe? If you are a child born in Germany your name has to be approved and parents have to stick to a number of regulations. In Africa at least one of your names will probably be a traditional tribal name and you may well have a name like Blessing, Hope, Sunny, or something similarly positive. Muslim names are very traditional and many people share common names such as Mohammed and Ali.

Of course we all have our own associations based on people we know or our cultural background, and those associations may well prove to be completely wrong.

Names are very cool, very important and choosing your characters names can sometimes be really difficult. Here’s how I do it.

On occasion a character comes to me complete with name. That was the case in my current WIP when everything about the character – how she looked, what she sounded like, and even her name – came to me with the story idea. I simply can’t imagine any other name for her. However, those times are few and far between and my characters are usually more a process of discovery rather than a thunderbolt of inspiration.

My starting point is always the character’s personality and their place in the story. I like the name to connect to the character in a meaningful way so that it helps to inform the reader so I’ll start by trying to figure out who they are. I think about age, what they sound like, how they speak, whether they are loud or quiet, what sort of activities or hobbies they enjoy, where they’re from, etc. That gives me an idea of what their name should sound like to me. Beccy is a very different name from Rebecca. Lily suggests something different than Lilian.

My next step is to hit the resources: Baby name books, the Internet, I even keep a list of names I like.  This is where cultural considerations come into play. There are specific naming conventions in China, Spain, Latin America and many other countries. If your character has a heritage like this you’ll need to consider it. If you’re working in a fantasy or Sci-fi genre you have even more scope because you can choose you own naming convention. You can also use really unusual names. Place names are sometimes useful for this purpose as are ingredients from food packets. Don’t laugh. It works. Don’t forget Ancient Greek, Roman or Celtic names either. Many names have meanings and that’s also something I consider. A name that has a connotation with grace or elegance might not work for a character that’s a clutz. Or it might work just fine if that’s  something you want to set up.

Finally, the name has to sound right, both out loud and inside your head. Your reader will probably see the name thousands of times in a full length novel. If it’s difficult to read or jars when you see it on the page it will become an irritation. And of course, if you’re lucky enough to end up with the next Harry Potter or Jack Ryan series, you want the name to sound right when it’s heard by a movie audience. 🙂

Of course, picking a name at random is fine too.

How do you go about naming charactrers? Do you have any tips and tricks to share?


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