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Some Thoughts on Naming Characters

 I LOVE NAMES.

I keep an Excel spreadsheet of names and surnames I like, so I have something to refer to every time a new character crops up. Seriously, I love naming characters. For the most part. On occasion, naming gives me grief, and hours upon hours of babyname.com procrastination still can't save me. But mostly, it's fun – and pretty fascinating, I think. Below, some rambletastic thoughts on naming characters.

Character after the name 

This is the easiest naming stage for me. I might know a couple things about my book and my characters, but the less I know, the easier it is for me to name them.

Character before the name 

The more I know about a character, the harder they are to name. Worst is when I've written most or all of a story, and have to change a major character's name for some reason; say, a book with some similarities to mine is using it already, or I realize it has unintended connotations, or I never really liked it in the first place.

I think it's mostly because names aren't ever in a vacuum – they come with a feeling, or multiple. They vary, depending on the sound, what they're similar to, who we've known with them, or read about with them, or seen on TV, and on and on. Sometimes, though, names come with a feeling based on nothing in particular. They excite us – or inexplicably rub us the wrong way.

(I would give an example, but I might inadvertently insults somebody's dear old aunt.)

So when I've already created a character, matching them to the perfect name is almost impossible, I find. I end up settling, and feel mildly unhappy about it. Fortunately, sometimes the character grows into the name during further revisions.

Choosing names by meaning 

I don't do this, although I know other writers who do. It's pretty interesting to look up my characters' names after I've used them, though.

Unusual names 

Guilty as charged. I'm always attracted to creative names, but I think the key is balance. Especially in a contemporary novel. If a character's name is truly unusual (… like Mandarin), it needs to be for a reason, and balanced out by "normal" names. When too many unlikely (though pretty on their own) names crowd a narrative, it's distracting and unbelievable.

Fantasy and future worlds often call for unusual names. However, there's definitely such a thing as too unusual. I love the names in Melina Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock, because they're familiar, but with interesting spellings: Evanjalin, Finnikin, Isaboe. I love Kristin Cashore's names, like Katsa, Po, Brigan and Bitterblue. But I'm not a fan of the majority of Suzanne Collins' names in The Hunger Games trilogy: Katniss, Peeta, Gale, no. Though I do love Prim and Rue.

Names from the wrong era 

Always something to think about. Names from our parents' and grandparents' generations (especially girl names) – even our own generation, depending on how old we are – often seem incredibly old-fashioned to teens. However, names from older generations are back in play. Twenty years ago, Emma, Ava and Abigail would have seemed passé, and now they're among the top ten most popular names in the United States. And in five years, that might change all over again. Which leads me to…

Super popular names 

When I was in high school, a book featuring a Chris and Jennifer (and there were plenty) woukd have seemed uninspired. For the same reason, I try to steer clear of names like Madison and Emma – pretty much anything in the SSA's yearly top ten, actually – for main characters (side characters are fine). Even though they're unusual names for people my age, they might be overly familiar and generic-feeling for teens.

Then there are names less popular in the real world, but super popular in the novel world, particularly in YA. How many variations of Damien have we encountered in paranormal or urban fantasy?

How do you choose names? What are some of your all-time favorite character names? Are there any you can't stand?
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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28 comments:

  1. Oh, I know the perils of babynames.com! I think I've killed off more than one nascent project by spending so long searching for perfect, meaningful names that I lost my first blaze of energy and never even gpt a first line on paper.

    I dodged that bullet with a WIP set in a world with a peculiar naming convention, although I don't know if that will stick all the way through.

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  2. This is really interesting. Sometimes I find a name is just attached to a character in my head, I hear a name and automatically picture a character. This is quite rare though, normally it takes hours of thinking and the babynames.com procrastination to get there.

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  3. For my current WIP i pulled in a bunch of characters based on people from my old Rugby team and just left their names as-is. Unfortunately, they're all pretty recognizable, and there's at least one that I need to change so i don't get sued if it ever gets published. And it's SO HARD to come up with replacements!
    (My fave is the Random Name Generator from Behind the Name. I like to be accurate about my national origins! But often I just stare and go 'man, that's weird.')

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  4. One approach I sometimes use--especially for contemporary novels--is to consider the character's parents (assuming you've thought that deeply about your character). What would they have named their son/daughter? Perhaps the parents are immigrants, and might have chosen a name from their homeland? Maybe they were influenced by bands/celebrities they liked when the child was born? Or maybe they have a family name that is passed down (e.g., Robert Edwin Jones III)? Perhaps the character's name is bland and uninspired because his/her parents didn't really care about him/her and just gave their child whatever name came into their head--this says a lot about the parents AND would obviously influence the character's personality. Or maybe they gave the character a name from their religious tradition (Zachariah, Mohammad, Mary, Thomas...)

    Just some thoughts!

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  5. Naming characters are always my favourite part! I love creating fictional people. ^^ Fantasy is my favourite because you can be really creative with names, like you said.

    I seem to choose names depending on what their parents are like. I've noticed I have a habit of making parents have a pattern with names. Like for one W.I.P the parents chose names beginning with 'D' for their three boys and another have given all their children Irish names.

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  6. I tend to use the meaning of names a lot, and I'm doing that even more with my WIP, Crow's Rest. I also use the feature in the baby names sites that give popular names for a birth year. But in that case, I don't use one in the top 10--try to stay with the familiar, but not common, names.

    P.S. My Aunt Example is insulted.

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  7. My name rule is find something unusual but not too weird. The name's country of origin is quite important too, because what might be rare in the US might not be elsewhere.

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  8. Sometimes names can totally kill a book for me! Well, not usually that bad, but I get really distracted when the name is so weird. I, too, had a hard time with Gale (it's a girls name!), Peeta (ugh), and Katniss (I kept hearing Catnip).

    In one of my MS', I used a baby name book for a lot of the names and I based them on their meanings. But sometimes I just pick a name because it sound right.

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  9. I write contemporary most of the time and try to avoid overpopular names also, but I do want them to fit for the time period, so I use that Social Security link a lot. You can put in the right year for the age of the characters, and list fifty or even a hundred names.

    Still, sometimes a name just fits even if it wasn't that popular when the character would have been born.

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  10. I love names too! I can't even imagine how obsessive I'll be over my future children's names lol.

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  11. I love the idea of a spreadsheet for potential character names! Sure beats my current method (tons of scrawled lists scattered throughout various notebooks which are scattered throughout my apartment).

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  12. When I stated wrting, I thought picking the name would be the easiest part, but you're right, that can be difficult.

    One of my WiPs, I went with heritage to determine the names: Aimee for her French father and Luca for his Italian mother. I like those. They seem to compliment each other.

    I happen to faver Ender from Ender's Game. That is just such a great name to me...and foreshadowing.

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  13. I adore naming my characters, it's like choosing baby names but my husband doesn't get to veto!

    I love the name Lyra from His Dark Materials and I've never got over Sarah Dessen naming the bad guy Will in Just Listen, it's a hero name!!!

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  14. I'm really into nicknames, so many a character's name has actually been chosen not by the name but by what can be done to it. For example, in the WIP I'm revising now, I wanted to really stress each side character's individual relationship with the MC, so I gave the MC a name that had a lot of easy potential nicknames. In the one I'm writing now, I wanted to give the MC a stuffy name to reflect something about her parents, but one that had an easy nickname for others to call her, etc.

    As to where the master list of names comes from, it's admittedly largely composed of names of people who inspired physical traits of my characters, and the rest are just names I either like or at least feel have personality.

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  15. Naming characters is definitely one of my most, and least, favorite things when planning my book. There are some names that I've come to love, and I don't think I'd feel the same emotional tie to my characters if I changed their names mid-novel (the main characters, at least). So I try to pick names from the beginning with only a few characteristics to go on, then I build from there so I have that connection with them.

    And whoever said it was like picking baby names without getting a veto from your husband - LOVE IT! :)

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  16. This is really interesting! I like to use a site called Nameberry because if you like one name, on the side it will give you lists that have that name, so if you click the lists then you'll find more names that sort of go together! It's really nice. Thanks for the post! :)

    -Meredith

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  17. I actually rely on a lot of name generators (including Scrivener's). Oddly enough, I actually find it easier to give them names the more I know things about them, like "Melvin" will not obviously suit a badass character for me, unless I'm going for irony.

    I also do "parked" names sometimes - giving a character a temporary name and going on writing until I find a better one. That way, I don't lose my writing momentum - although a character I have a "parked" name that grew on me, and it eventually became his actual name.

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  18. I "park" names too. But generally I don't put that much thought into names. Sometimes the name just comes to me and is perfect and sometimes it's just an everyday name. I take care with the MC name though. I think Katniss is a great name because it's practically a brand now, like Xerox.

    I've been collecting captchas (the one for this comment is Volato)and some of them make great character names. I blog about it here:
    http://angelhorn.com/2012/01/07/fun-with-captchas-and-giveaway/

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  19. I agree that naming before you know to much is the easiest way. It's so much harder to name a character once you know too much about them. If the name comes organically out of planning them out, I rarely chance it. I tend to go for names that are somewhere in the middle between popular and unique, ones that everyone knows but aren't overused.

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  20. Another good generator for those who have exhausted babynames.com is <a href="http://www.behindthename.com/>behindthenames.com</a> It lets you search by culture and masculine and feminine.

    I love naming characters! It's one of my favorite parts of character design. I write YA fantasy, so most of the names I come up with are unusual. I'm with you that I don't like all the names in the Hunger Games either. Peeta? Really?

    The MC in my novel is named Lividia Blackwell. The first name came to me and the surname I researched for the Victorian time period. Her cousin's name is Nephenia Blackwell. I balance those out with more average names like Marie and Samuel, but I have a major penchant for weird but lovely names.

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  22. Fascinating post! I was trying to name characters for a new novel idea yesterday, because I can't really get to know a character until I have their name (and yes, like you, I struggle to rename them later on) but I came up against an unexpected problem. The RIGHT names for each individual character, with meaning and era and general emotional feel, weren't too hard to find. But they didn't work together as a cast. I write for 8-12s, so my books need to work read out loud to a class or at bedtime as well as in the head, therefore I have to think hard about the sounds of words. And yesterday all the perfect names had 'S' in them. ALL of them. It was going to be a very hissy book. So I had to change a few names, so that they worked as a cast, as well as individuals. And that was tough, because some of those names were perfect...

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  23. Sometimes I just like a name so much, I build a character around it, other times -like now- I look for names with meaning, but that aren't necessarily super unusual. But I always start knowing their names, it's the first thing I do.
    I LOVE Voldemort's and Hermione's names, unique and genius to the extreme! And I can't stand when characters have what you called Super Popular Names. Just, no.

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  24. OK, first, I love that the image you chose is OHIO. That's where I grew up. :)

    Secondly, I have a hard time with names. At least, I do with main character names. I feel like it has to be perfect, and I cannot write the story unless I have the right name. Lame, right? Getting to know the character helps me, though.

    Secondary characters have it a bit easier in my book worlds.

    As far as favorite names? I have to go with Rogerson Biscoe. One of Sarah Dessen's characters from her book DREAMLAND. Another favorite one is Jackson Jones. That's from THE GIRL WITH THE SILVER EYES, and IIRC, it's also from a middle grade series.

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Item Reviewed: Some Thoughts on Naming Characters Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard