10 Tips for Naming Characters
Have you ever called someone by the wrong name? As embarrassing as it is in real life, in fiction it can be disastrous. Give a character the wrong name – a name that doesn’t fit – and you risk not only the character’s believability but also his or her likeability.
Even with its perils, naming characters is still one of my favorite writing tasks. Names often come to me before I have a character to use it with. When I hear a name or a word that evokes a strong response, I make note of it. Sometimes details about the person come to me with the name. For example, I have a character named Julia Teague on my cast list for my current series. The only thing I know about her is that she is a judge’s wife. I’m not sure when she will show up or what her purpose will be, but she’s there, waiting in the wings to step into the spotlight.
In real life, anyone can be named anything– but in fiction it matters because names give readers a subliminal clue about who the character is and how he or she is might behave. While that can paint a picture, establish expectations – it can also be used to surprise the reader.
So, where do names come from?
Everywhere – high school yearbooks, movie credits, bookstores, the phonebook, church directories, maps, baby name books, religions, the newspaper, magazines, websites – potential character names are all around us, finding the one that fits your character is the trick. Here are some tips:
Choose a name that supports the character’s role in your story.
Names go in and out of fashion. Make sure your character’s name is appropriate for the decade in which he or she was born.
Make sure your character’s name reflects his or her personality, or the person he or she will become over the course of your book or series.
Don’t saddle your character with a strange or cutesy name – unless you have a good reason to do so. Do I really have to explain why?
Unique names are fine, in moderation.
Think about the actual meaning of the name – does it add to your character or become a hurdle he or she must overcome?
Where is the character from? Names can be influenced by region and time period.
Nicknames also help shed light on a character – as well as on relationships.
Be careful about naming characters with similar sounding names or names that begin or end with the same letters or sounds. I seem to have an affinity for names that have the “K” sound.
Pay attention to how names sound when spoken. Are they harsh sounding or soft? Is there alliteration? Rhythm? Flow? Does it help or hinder your story’s narrative flow?
And finally, you might want to Google your character’s names, just to make sure there isn’t an unintended connection that could impact your reader’s perceptions.
How do you come up with character names? What is your favorite fictional character’s name?