Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Characters - What's in a Name?

After my last post I've been thinking about character names a lot.  When I name a character I know that the name is going to be part of what defines them.  It says something about who they are, where they're from and the way they're going to be.  Ideally I love it when characters come with their own names.  A short search sometimes yields one without any problem.  Sometimes it's not a name I understand, sometimes it's an earth name (aka in one of the baby sites).  The odd thing that I love when the characters I meet come with names attached is that often the meaning (when it's an earth name) suits the character.  It's one of the amazing things about writing that I really love.

It's not always that easy!  Any writer who's written more than one story knows there are some characters who are stubborn, who won't tell you a thing about themselves without you wrestling them to the ground and making them cry uncle first!  When a character like that rolls around I will first flip through my mind and try out different sounds.  Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't.  When it works I"m happy enough since I usually get to name them and make up the meaning when that happens and since it's something that was chosen specifically for that character it fits them well enough and I as the author feel comfortable working with the character.

When making up sounds to form a name doesn't work I have to stop and consider what I already know about the character.  The very first character I meet for a story is the hardest.  They're the one that you may not know everything about to begin with and finding a name for a character when you know nothing about them is HARD.  You don't know what they love or hate, or why they're important or what kind of story they're going to feature in.  Sometimes you don't even know if they're going to be your main character.  It's in this case that I find two things helpful to pursue immediately.  First of all where are they from.  It's the where they are from that's important not the where are they now for a very specific reason.  If you know where they're from, you know the (or you should have an idea of) type of names those people give, you know the culture that the character is going to have come from, you know the possibilities for class that are likely, whether the character has magic or not, whether it knows a lot about science (fantasy vs sci-fi would be a place difference), even things like how the character will handle problems, what kind of prejudices your character might have, what experiences were likely when your character was growing up, etc, etc, etc.  Wow, all that just from a place!  Now, knowing where the character is currently will help you start to fill in all that in between information.  How they got where they are, what happened along the way and why they're the way they are now. 

That's fabulous!  With two questions you've got a handle on your character so now the name, that's when I choose three or four things that really personify the character and I track over to one of the web's baby name sites.  I specifically go for sites that let you look up the meanings.  I pop the first description of that person's personality into the search function and peruse the names that are conveniently placed before me.  Usually the first trait I put in comes up with something I can use, sometimes I don't like any of the names presented to me or they don't quite fit, or if it's a not entirely positive trait it may not show up with that specific word (synonyms are useful there).  I'll move on down my list of traits until I find the name that fits the best.  If that still doesn't work I'll start looking at the sounds of the names that kind of fit and re-arranging them to create a mix of names that suits the character.

Very, very rarely I'll come across a character who is so stubborn nothing seems to fit them.  But in that very rare case I've almost always found it's because the character is hiding something from me that I need to understand about their personality before I can name them.  When I go back and find out more about the character a name is almost always revealed.  If they won't talk even then?  Well, then they're not worth the trouble and it's time to find a new character and story.  You'd be surprised how often they start talking quickly after that... no character likes to be left behind for another!


  1. My struggle was less with coming up with names and more with ensuring internal consistency in naming: making sure the names all felt the same when they were from the same culture. It's an interesting process, and a few characters have seen name changes or alterations as I've sorted out the world.


  2. I follow that idea loosely, but due to the way my world was created I do it a little less than I probably should. There's a few things that are different that way for me.

  3. The culture where they are from, i agree, has a huge role to play! Even with out knowing the other charachter's names, people from the same area tend to have similar type names. :) Thats the fun of variety.