Naming characters is an important part of character creation. It determines how your characters will be known moving forward. Some people find this aspect of the character creation phase to be very easy or mostly intuitive. For those of you who don’t, here are some of my suggestions on how to go about coming up with names for your story’s cast.
1.) Differentiate Your Names
My cardinal rule for naming characters is making sure that none of the names look similar on the page. Having characters with names that appear similar can either cause the reader to slow down to make sure they know who is taking action, or, worse, it can cause the reader to become confused and lose the thread of what’s going on.
I actually think that J.R.R. Tolkien made this mistake when he named his villains Sauron and Saruman. If you’re reading quickly, the two names can seem almost interchangeable. This can be confusing, especially if the names end up both being used in the same scene.
An easy way to get around this is by making sure that all of your characters have names that start with different letters. If, for whatever reason, you can’t do this, then make sure that the names at least look (and ideally sound) different. For example, Sarah and Sophia probably look different enough on the page (the “p” helps) that those two characters wouldn’t get confused.
2.) Name Origins
People get their names for a variety of different reasons. Oftentimes, the name has some sort of significance within the family or to the parents of the child. You might want to ask your parents why you were given your name, if you don’t already know. Additionally, ask other parents you know how they decided on what to name their kids.
If you can come up with an organic reason to give one of your characters a name, I think that’s best. Maybe they are named after a relative. Maybe they are even named after a fictional character; in recent times we’ve seen a fair amount of kids being named “Bella” and “Khaleesi”, as an example. Many authors will find names for their characters that have specific meanings meant to match with the idea of the character. Personally I find this to be a little precious, but it’s certainly one way to settle on names for your cast.
These little background details can be used to inform character experience or even the plot. Depending on what your story is about, the history of your character’s name could prove very important. Even if it doesn’t, having characters who have some anecdote about their name makes them feel more real.
3.) Cultural Background
Your characters should have names that match their cultural heritage, unless perhaps there is a good reason for them not to. For example, you might have an adopted character whose parents have given him a Western name, regardless of where is from. There are also a lot of foreigners in American who adopt Western names for ease. I have a friend whose father is Greek but always told us to refer to him as Peter because he figured it was easier. However, if this is the case, you should know what your character’s real name is, even if you don’t use it frequently in the text.
Cultural heritage can also impact what Westernized names a second or third generation immigrant might end up with. In my upcoming serial Nine Tails one of my main characters is named Jason, and I chose this name because he is of Korean heritage, and Jason is common among Korean-Americans because it is similar to some Korean names and can therefore be pronounced by Koreans.
Additionally, depending on your audience, you may want to be careful which names you select for your characters. If your primary audience are specific minority groups, then having very non-Western names is probably fine, but if you’re trying to reach a more mainstream (read: primarily white) readership, then having names they won’t have much trouble with is probably best. Min (short for Min-Ji), Sora, and Chul are the names of three Korean characters from Nine Tails, and though those names are obviously non-Western, they are also very easy to pronounce for Westerners, so they won’t provide stumbling blocks for readers.
These tips are also mostly for first names. If your character is of a specific heritage, having a last name to match is a good way to indicate this, even if the character has a more Westernized first name. When selecting surnames, especially, try to keep your character’s background in mind. Even if the character is white, there are a lot of different cultures that make up “whiteness” in the United States, so try and be more specific than that.
4.) Fantasy Names
If you’re making up a fantastical name, make sure it’s something that is pronounceable and, more importantly, readable. You don’t want your reader to stop when they come to a name full of dashes and apostrophes and consonants and try to sound it out. Any name you’re making up should roll off the tongue and be easy to read out loud.
Honestly, I might try to stick to real names, even older or obscure ones, if it works for your story. This not only makes your world building easier but ensures that your characters have names your readership will recognize and not get hung up on.
5.) Period Appropriate
You want to make sure that the names you’re giving your characters fit with whatever time period you’re writing in. If they don’t, then make sure they don’t fit in for a reason, and draw attention to that. Are you writing a contemporary piece that has a protagonist named Ethel? You might want to give some background as to why she has that name.
Obviously this will matter the most in period pieces, but if you want to get really detailed in a contemporary piece, you can figure out when your character would’ve been born and look up what the most popular names were during that year.
6.) Middle Names
Consider having at least one character who goes by his or her middle name instead of his or her given name. I mean, come on, we all have that one friend, don’t we? Having a character who does this provides opportunities for you to give some interesting back story. Why does this person want to go by his or her middle name? Do they find their first name embarrassing for some reason? Are there multiple people with the same first name in the group? This could be key to your plot or it could just be a fun detail that adds depth and realism to your story. Either way, your writing will benefit.
Also, consider using that same tactic with last names.
7.) Name Resources
If you’re looking for some inspiration for character names, there are three places that I go to that I can recommend.
The first are baby name websites. These are a great place to see what kinds of names are popular, to find names starting with different letters, and to find names from different cultures that might fit one of your characters.
Directories or any other long list of names can help with this. I used to generate character names by flipping through my high school directory of students and writing down all of the first and last names I liked, then swapping them around to create different combinations. You could do something similar with a phone book or even by jotting down names from movie credits.
Name generators are another option, especially for fantasy or sci-fi authors. Personally I think that the names generated are often pretty bad, but they can serve as a great starting point to come up with other ideas.
Anyway, those are my tips for figuring out character names. Do you use any of these? Are there any methods I missed? Let me know in the comments.
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