Is it me, or is one of the hardest parts of starting a new story naming all of the characters? Maybe it’s just me, nitpicking over small details, but it seems like a pretty big responsibility, naming another human (or elf, or dwarf etc.), even if they are only fictional (God forbid if I ever have kids and actually have to choose a name for another human being!).
It’s just that once you’ve chosen a name you’re pretty much stuck with it for the entirety of the project, unless you’re willing to put in a lot of effort afterward to go back through and change it. So I’d say it pays to choose wisely in the first place!
But what makes a good character name? For starters, I think it has to be suitable for the place/time it’s set in. So if your story is set in a medieval style fantasy world full of castles and knights, naming a character an ultra modern name like Jaden or Tyler might be a bit odd (although it’s your story, so if that’s what you want to do, go for it!). Likewise if you’re writing a contemporary then calling your main character who’s a just regular high school student ‘Princess Liliath Lelandi Lichtenstein the Second’ might be a bit much…although to be fair I think that name might be a bit much for most books!
I also think it needs to suit the character (and by this I don’t mean you do a Dickens and literally name every character after a trait or their occupation!). Whilst with real people you’re named at birth and then grow into your name, with fiction it’s the other way round. Sometimes you see a person and just think they look like a certain name – maybe they are sweet and girly, and look like they should have a nice floral name like Daisy or Lily – and I think those are the best kinds of names for characters. By the same token you don’t want to take it too far though and have every cool Goth character have a suitably dark name, or every tough character to have a super tough name (unless it’s a nickname!), because that just seems too convenient.
So I guess it’s fair to say that naming characters is tough, and I’d love to know how other writers go about the process. Personally I have a few approaches:
- I consult my running list of names.
Seen as I know that I always struggle with character names, I keep a running list of possibilities on the Evernote app in my phone. Any time an interesting name occurs to me I quickly note it down, so when I’m starting a new project and inevitably have trouble christening my characters, I can just check my list for something suitable.
- I brainstorm options for the specific characters.
If I have a very specific character that I need a name for, I often spend a little time coming up with a few possibilities that might suit the character. I think if I have a few options I’m less likely to plump for something stupid that I’ll later regret, as I can pick the best of the bunch, and even run my options by an unbiased third party (and by that I mean I ask my mum or my sister if my name ideas are stupid or not!).
- I use name generators.
A little while ago I was browsing on Pinterest and stumbled across a name generator, which has proven itself pretty handy the odd time I’ve been really stuck for a name. I write a lot of fantasy and so have to come up with a lot of unusual names, and so getting ideas and suggestions from a name generator (particularly one that gives you very specific options like ‘elf names’, ‘bandit names’, ‘medieval names’) can really speed things up.
And here’s a few little tips for things I personally wouldn’t do when naming a character:
- Don’t name them after people you know.
Because depending on the character, they may not be particularly flattered…
- Don’t pick names that sound too similar.
If you give characters in the same novel names that are too similar sounding it can get confusing for the reader – did anyone else keep getting mixed up with the names Aelin and Aedion in the Throne of Glass series? It’s only the first two letters that are the same, but at a glance I kept reading wrong which character the book was referring to!
- Don’t pick names that are impossible to pronounce.
I’m looking at you George R.R. Martin! I’m still not sure I’m pronouncing Daenarys Targaryen right. Even if you’re just reading the book in your head, an unpronounceable name can make you stumble over a sentence, and then it’s hard to really lose yourself in the book and forget that you’re reading.
- Don’t pick names that are too weird.
If it’s fantasy, then I guess you can go as weird as you want, but I think in contemporary especially, if you go to weird it just comes off as a bit contrived, if that makes sense? Plus you then wonder how everyone the character meets in the story isn’t all like, ‘what the hell is up with your name?’
So fellow writers, how do you come up with your character names? And do you have any dos or don’t to choosing names?