I have no name: I am but two days old. What shall I call thee? ~ William Blake
When you first meet a new fictional character, she will often reveal herself slowly. Maybe first, a mental image of her general appearance, or a quick glimpse at her situation and goals. You feel excited as you begin to plan your story or outline, and rush to your keyboard or notebook.
Before that first sentence is written, you come upon an unsettling discovery. You don’t know your character’s name! Often, new characters are not forthcoming with their names, and you have to rack your brain to come up with one, instantly short-circuiting the writing process.
A name is a crucial yet overlooked part of the author’s decision making process. People form associations with different names, and a character named “Sir William T. Rutherford of Devonshire” will create a different impression from one named “Willie McGee”. Here are some considerations when naming a fictional character.
Fictional Character Naming Techniques
- Consider your story’s setting. Odd place to start, right? A modern day setting lends itself to names we are all familiar with, while a historical setting often has more elaborate names, including the character’s title and homeland. In a futuristic story, a fictional characters name can be as familiar or fantastical as you desire!
- Research the setting. If your story is in a small town, it’s quite possible that you could unintentionally come up with the name of a real human being. A quick trip to the yellow pages can save you a lot of grief later on in the writing process. Historical stories also face the problem of copying the name of a real world figure, although some writers do choose to incorporate public figures into their novels.
- Compare other character names. If you’ve already named a few of your characters, review how their names work together. Their name can give subtle clues about your characters’ ethnicity, social status, and how they see themselves (in the case of nicknames). Look out for alliteration! Readers can become confused when multiple characters’ names start with the same letter.
- Browse baby naming books and websites. Hundreds of thousands of names can be found in baby naming literature, saving both parents and writers a lot of time and trouble. They often including name meanings and origins, which can help your character portray the right characteristics.
- Examine your friends’ and family members’ names – for names not to choose! No one wants to try to explain to a loved one that they did not write a story about them. Play it safe, and put those names on your permanent “Do Not Name” list.
- Create your own name. If nothing is calling out to you, you can always piece together your own name. Science fiction and fantasy novels often include otherworldly names, which look like a random mishmash of syllables. As long as your name follows conventional linguistic patterns, readers should be able to pronounce the name to themselves while reading. (A tip: No more than three consonants go in a row without a vowel in most English words.)
How do you decide on your characters’ names? Do they come fully equipped with names, or do you have to coax them out? Have you ever created your own name? Share your techniques here!
Photo Credit: 05-28-06 © Ronald Bloom