From the Vaults: 10 Tips for Naming Your Character
Originally published on March 23, 2014.
Featuring prior co-hosts Steve McLain and Heather Luby.
This cast was originally, and is rebroadcast, as audio only.
Welcome back to Firsts in Fiction, loyal listeners! Sadly, Aaron couldn’t join us this week because of a scheduling conflict, but he should be back with us next week. For now, Heather and Steve take a look at naming our characters. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Find Steve, Heather and Aaron on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher.
Character names can present a unique challenge. We want to find one that fits our primary characters (and even our secondary characters as well) that are going to be unique and memorable without being too outlandish. Remember, your reader will see these names a multitude of times throughout the pages of your novel or series. Here are some things to keep in mind as you work to find the right name. Also, we’ve included a few tips for you when you’re looking for the perfect name for your character.
1. Please make the name pronounceable. Sure, in fantasy and sci-fi we like to demonstrate all the wonderful language-building we’ve done for the particular race, but even so, a name with too many consonants or vowels can be tough to get. If you’re asking our tongue to do aerobics in order to get our mouths around a simple name, you’re probably asking us to work too hard. In all honesty, when I see a name that’s overtly difficult to pronounce, I’ll call them Mr. M or Mr. P etc. and move on. Even then, as Heather so aptly said, the crazy names end up becoming speed bumps for the reader. It takes them away from reading and makes their minds engage in a different type of thinking, which shatters the fictive dream.
2. If possible, have the name say something about the character. I wouldn’t overburden yourself with discovering the meanings of names and going to the point of allegory (where characters embody a particular characteristic and take the name of that value, such as Charity or Prudence or Justice or Destiny etc.). However, in Aaron’s novel The Bargain, the sister-in-law’s name is Aida, which means “helper.” And while she was a helper, she didn’t embody the characteristic wholly. She was pointed and abrupt in conversation, she was cynical and sarcastic. But when push came to shove, she demonstrated a type of empathy uncommon in the town in which she lived. Steve’s “bad guy” in his work in progress is named Festle (which sounds like fester) Killusion (sounds like illusion–one who is disillusioned, perhaps). The good guy is named Edelric (a mix of Edward, Eric, and Alric). The combination is pronounceable, but because it is drawn out, sounds more noble and high-born. These types of names are called connotative names–names that say something about our characters, but are not explicit. Think of Draco Malfoy. Draco is Latin for dragon, and the prefix “mal” means “bad” or “evil.” It also sounds much like the word “Malformed,” which means poorly made.
3. The name should be historically accurate. Of course, this is most evident in historical fiction, but it’s also nice to know common names throughout the years to draw on those. There are several places online where you can check the popularity of baby names by year (for example, here or here). The other advantage to these sites is the ability to pick a name that wasn’t overly popular. By process of elimination, you can easily find uncommon names for the year your character was born.
4. If you want to use an unusual name, make sure it’s surrounded by common names. We could use any number of odd character names here, but for the sake of argument, let’s go with Kilgore Trout, the unsuccessful sci-fi novelist from Kurt Vonnegut’s many books. The name is still easy to pronounce. It’s still connotative (suggests that this guy is fishy). But, mostly, it’s successful because it’s surrounded by names like Billy Pilgrim and Dwayne Hoover. These common names not only lend credibility to the novel, they serve to highlight Kilgore’s unique name even more.
5. Avoid “loaded” names. These are names that come with their own connotations. Think Jesus, Hannibal, and Romeo. If you choose one of these names, you need to understand they come with a history. This may deepen your book in some way (again, if you’re going for allegory), but it can also be a detriment. It may not be the connotation that you want. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot separate the name from the history.
6. Avoid names that sound the same or start with the same letter. These can be especially difficult for the reader to keep straight. For example, in my Hand of Adonai series, my main character was named Kara (a name I loved), and I had another girl named Erica. A beta reader of mine suggested changing one or the other, because they sounded so similar, and he was right. Hence, Kara became Lauren. Also, if you have several characters who have names that start with the same letter, the reader will end up easily confused, no matter how different the rest of their names may be.
7. Speak the name of your characters out loud. This suggestion seems to go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many writers never say the names of their characters until they’re talking with their agent and having to describe how the name is pronounced. Phonetics can be tricky, and though you spell a name phonetically, it doesn’t mean your reader will pick up on your phonemic subtleties. Once you say the name out loud, the pronunciation should be clear, as if there is no other way to pronounce it.
8. Be aware of the actual meaning of the name. Then use it to your advantage. If your character’s name is Stephen (crowned one), he might eventually become king. For more fun, subvert the meaning of the name. Deny Stephen the crown. Most readers will likely miss this layer of meaning, but for those who find it, it will further enrich the book.
9. Consider nicknames, pet names, and shortened names. Of course most Johnathans go by John. And we know that husbands and wives etc. like to use pet names like honey or dear or babe. Remember, whatever your character’s name, different people will address him or her differently. Consider my son Josiah. People often ask if they can call him “Joe” for short. No. They can’t. For whatever reason, his friends and family have taken to calling him Siah (or Jag, as his initials spell out). My other son Elijah goes by Lijah rather than Eli. And my youngest son Levi goes by Levi, but I like to call him Boogs (short for Boogers). My wife, when Levi was three, once called him Boogs, and he said, “No, mommy. Only daddy can call me Boogs. You call me Levi.” Think of your character and his or her friends and family. What do they call them for short? What pet names are being used. These small details can add an additional layer of character development to your novel.
10. Consider gender. This seems like another obvious suggestion, but it warrants a mention. You can do a lot with a character who’s got a name that is not common to their gender. Often, names can be gender neutral (Aaron and Erin, let’s say). I’ve even seen Ryan used as girls names much more often recently (including Heather’s oldest daughter). But having a name that can be used for the other gender changes the way strangers interact with your character. A personal story: Because I’ve gotten so tired of Starbucks employees writing Erin on my cups, I’ve decided to tell them my name is Spartacus. Unfortunately, they spell that wrong, too. Guess I’ll have to find something easier, like Vader.
There you have it: Ten easy tips to finding the right name for your characters. Hope you enjoyed it. As always, we love hearing from you. Make sure you make your voice heard on our Facebook page, or tweet us @FirstsinFiction