Monday, July 17, 2017

What's In a Name?: How to Come Up with the Perfect Name for Your Character

Indiana Jones. Bilbo Baggins. Mary Poppins. Victor Frankenstein.

Now, do you think their stories would be quite as grand if their names were Robert Jones or Mary Smith? Maybe… but I bet you wouldn’t remember those characters quite as clearly.

Particularly when you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, naming your character is paramount. This is something, I’ll admit, I harp upon when acting as a beta reader. So, I’d like to formally apologize for any vicious tirades on which I may have gone concerning poorly-chosen character names:

Right, now that that’s out of the way…

Your characters are your babies. People agonize over what they’re going to name their child. Such care should go into naming your characters, as well, and yes: I mean every character.

Someone asked me recently how I named my characters, and the question stuck with me so much, that I decided I needed to write a whole post on the topic. There are a few things I take into consideration.

1. The character’s personality. This one is obvious, but I think it’s one of those things that’s so obvious that people sometimes overlook it. A character’s name is an extension of their personality.  It helps cement the character in the reader’s mind. So, the first thing I do is look at the character’s personality. Let’s use Iago Wick as an example (because he so loves being the center of attention).

“Iago” comes from Shakespeare’s villain in Othello, of course. I found that appropriate since Iago spends his days tempting humans and manipulating them. His last name references a candle wick, in addition to the word “wicked” but it's also a very quick and biting word. The word "wick" is sharp with a percussive final consonant. That reflects Iago’s quick wit and rather sharp nature. His name conveys a lot about him through literary allusions and overall sound—almost like a little mini biography.

2. The tone of the story. If you’re Terry Pratchett and you’re writing a Discworld novel, then a clockmaker named Jeremy Clockson (a nod, of course, to British personality Jeremy Clarkson) is a great idea. If you’re writing a particularly humorous tale and you want to name your hunky love interest Matt Goodflesh, then, more power to you. However, punny names can hurt your character if you’re writing something a little more serious. I always take the tone of the piece into mind when naming characters.

3. Say it out loud—over and over again. When you’re writing, you may be months into a project before you ever actually say a word about it. Sure, you think and write and type every day, but your character’s name has to look good on paper AND sound good out loud. So, say it out loud. Some of my personal rules (feel free to break these for your own purpose—this is just me):

- Nothing that rhymes too much.

- Nothing that’s too close to another character’s name.

- Must have nice prosody—that is the rhythm and musicality of the name.

- If I mess up saying it more than three times, it’s out. If you can’t say your character’s name, how is your reader going to say it? Don’t get too complicated.

4. Part of your world. When you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, you may be writing about other worlds and perhaps those worlds have their own language or idea of aesthetic. Always take that into account. It’s going to stand out like a sore thumb if you’ve crafted this beautiful otherworldly language… and then your otherworldly main character is named Mike. Really put some thought into what certain words and syllables mean in your world. What makes a name beautiful? What makes a name suitable for a villain? I love getting into the linguistics, and it will give your readers a richer experience, too.

I often use old and underused names in The Lovelace & Wick Series. It adds flavor but also keeps us firmly rooted in the pseudo-steampunk 1890s world in which the stories take place.

5. Don’t rely too much on name meaning sites. I mean this. Seriously. I’ve seen people spend HOURS of precious writing time on name meaning sites and still come up with only an average name for their character. (If they come up with a name at all! Sometimes the name meaning site—bloated with questionable ads and pop-ups—swallows the poor author whole and we never see them again.)

Honestly, though, the meaning of the name can be flavor, but I wouldn’t go in too deep. This is mostly because the average reader doesn’t know the meaning of the name Kate or Allie or Jeffrey or Quentin. While it might mean something to you, that’s not being conveyed to the reader, and at the end of the day, the reader’s perception is paramount.

A character’s name is precious. It’s a key part of them, and you love your characters, right? Well, do them a favor and give them a name that will make them proud! Shout it from the rooftops! (Maybe not. Don’t want to alarm the public officials.)

What about you, writers? How do you name your characters? And readers: what makes a good character name in your eyes? What’s your favorite?


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