Ah, names. Some writers love naming their characters; others recoil in horror at the very thought of such a difficult task. Me, I’m in the latter group. I once had a character go through two and a half drafts as “Bob” because I couldn’t find a suitable name and the lack of one was causing me to procrastinate on actually writing his story. Using the experiences of naming characters in my own stories and thinking about names in the stories of others, I have written up the following advice in the hope that you won’t have to resort to something as dorky as “Bob”.
- Make the names meaningful. J.K. Rowling is a master at this, using Greek, Latin, Old English, and more to name her hundreds of characters. Consider Remus Lupin. Remus and his twin Romulus (who later founded Rome) were raised by wolves and lupine means “resembling a wolf”. How fitting that the character is a werewolf. So spend some time learning about word roots, browsing foreign-language dictionaries, and Googling what possible name choices mean. P.S. If you’re an overachiever who’s inventing a language for a story, your names could mean something in the language. J.R.R. Tolkien was particularly good at that.
- Ask yourself, “What sort of person is my character, and what name would fit such a person?” This is a less “deep” version of Meaningful Names. If my female main character is a tomboy, I’m probably going to give her a name like Morgan or Bailey because they’re gender-neutral. A name like Priscilla or Daisy wouldn’t work as well – unless, of course, that’s the result you’re aiming for. If you want a character to hate their name, you can certainly go against this principle.
- Consider what the name looks and sounds like. What effect do you want a name to have? One baby-name book I saw said that short first names combine well with long surnames, and vice versa. On the other hand, a long and complex name might fit a talkative, longwinded character. And about alliteration – personally, I think a name like Bob Beanstalk or Arthur Arkenstone (or Daedalus Diggle!) sounds cutesy, but maybe that’s what you want. Finally, sound it out. Kiki Strike from the eponymous series by Kirsten Miller has a great name with regards to her personality: All those “K”s sound tough yet girly.
- Spend a lot of time on nicknames. These have to sound natural, and there are two types. If your nickname is based on the character’s real name, the two need to be clearly connected. For example, it’s probably not a great idea to shorten the name Benjamin to just “Min”. It’s not obvious enough. Secondly, listen to people talk to their friends and see what strange nicknames they have for one another – sometimes they’re not related to the real names at all. They could be inside jokes or “a long story” (you know, when someone doesn’t feel like explaining something complicated so they just say “It’s a long story”). My friend McKenzie with her nickname “Key” is a good example. I have no idea where that name came from and that’s the sort of thing you could expand on in a story: how Character X came by Nickname Y. If you want.
- To find last names, use the phonebook. I hate giving my characters surnames because I always end up either making up something ridiculous or thinking of really common names like Smith. Using a phonebook (or yearbook or any other big list of people) helps. Open it at random and jot down the names you like. Just be sure that your choices make sense – if your main character is Swedish then you probably shouldn’t use Gutierrez as her surname, no matter how cool it may sound.
- If you’re using preexisting names (versus creating your own), don’t use anything too popular. This is one of my pet peeves. There’s nothing wrong with names like Emily, Alex, and Katie (or one of the thousand variations thereof) but they don’t show creativity. They show that you Googled “top ten baby names of 2013”. So use something less common and more memorable, not a name one hears fifty times a day.
- When naming the members of a family, you may want the names to follow a pattern. Boromir and Faramir. Daenerys and Viserys. Albus, Aberforth, and Ariana. Giving family members – particularly siblings – similar names ties them together and often makes it easier to remember who goes where. I wouldn’t suggest that you do this with each and every family, but it can be a nice touch for a few because it shows that you’ve taken the time to work out the little details and weren’t just randomly bestowing names. You also don’t need to be super-obvious: Katniss Everdeen and her sister Prim(rose) are both named after plants, but I doubt most people even knew that katniss was a plant before reading The Hunger Games.
- Do your research if your characters come from an unfamiliar culture. If your characters come from a made-up culture that isn’t influenced (too much) by any from real life, it’s probably safe to ignore this. But if not, you’d better be sure that their names make sense. In our Western-centric world most of us can tell the difference between, say, German and Italian names, but what about Korean and Japanese names? Don’t be that idiot who goes, “Oh well, that sounds close enough.” These mistakes happen more often than one might think: Cho Chang in Harry Potter has a Japanese first name and a Chinese surname. Oops.
- With any kind of name, test it out by asking other people what they think. The most important thing you’re trying to learn is whether or not it sounds ridiculous – and ridiculousness can happen in a number of ways. Maybe the name would be outlandish for any character in the history of ever, or maybe it just doesn’t fit that particular character. So say, “I’m thinking of using [name] for this character. They’re [describe attributes of said character]. Does that work, or does it sound silly?” This doesn’t need to be a huge endeavor; if someone is critiquing a story for you, they’ll usually let you know what seems believable and what doesn’t.
P.S. I eventually named “Bob” Samuel.