What’s in a Name? How to Name Your Characters

Published September 21, 2009 by Eli Stutz

Does it matter what names you pick for your characters? No, it doesn’t. Next post.

Just kidding! It does matter, of course. Why? Because a character’s name should say something about that character, even in a round-about sort of way. In fact, deliberately in a round-about sort of way. Just like you wouldn’t want to pick a character name that has absolutely nothing in common with a character (like Rex for a poor orphan), you also want to avoid a name that is too obviously stating the character’s main trait. Like Joy for a happy character, or Posh for a glitzy character. And what about using very common names or very obscure names? John and Sarah on the one hand, Fern and Xerxes on the other. I prefer something in the middle. Too common is boring, too obscure is often confusing and takes attention away from the story.

I often go through lists of names on name websites, paying attention to each name’s meaning, and trying to find a meaning and a sound that rings true for that character. The nice thing about digital editing, is that you can change a character’s name up until the manuscript goes to copy-editing. But if possible, it’s best to choose your character’s name from the start. It will help you stick to the character’s personality better when you’re writing.

Where things get difficult is in heavy fantasy or science fiction stories, where you’ve got to make up names which don’t exist. Here, the finest example is Tolkien, since he created whole languages and linguistic rules for Middle Earth, enabling him to give character names that made sense and had meanings according to the character’s inner self. Like Mithrandir, Glorfindel and Galadriel. (I almost convinced my wife to call our daughter that! I actually came across a Blockbuster check-out lady with Galadriel on her name tag!) The rest of us are left to borrowing parts of words from existing languages or just coming up with gibberish, which, while funny, doesn’t sound very real. Like Slartibartfast from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s funny, but has not pretension of being real. If you are gong in for the heavy fantasy, I advise modifying names from the real world. That way, you can still hold onto some of the meaning, but make it sound as if it’s other-worldly at the same time. T.S. Eliot did a good job of that in Cats. Bombularina. Macavity. Mungojerry. Skimbleshanks, etc.

According to Jewish tradition, a person’s name has a lot to do with that person’s inner essence. With your characters, you should aim for more or less the same thing. 

Finally, here’s some random naming tips:

1. Don’t have too many character’s who’s names start with the same letter. That’s confusing. Alex. Annie. Angelina. Unless it’s on purpose.

2. For main characters, it’s best not to use over-long names (e.g. Kimberley, Alexandra, Ferdinand), and try to avoid one syllable names for main characters too. They just don’t say enough. Kip. Dan, Tim. etc.

3. Choose pleasant but interesting-sounding names for your main characters, if possible. Nobody wants to keep reading the word Brock 500 times. Or Cecilia. Or Roger. Or Sammy. Or Bernice. Go for Rosalind. Or Joshua. Or Melinda. Or Hugo.

Or Eli.

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