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How to Name Characters

Updated on July 30, 2009

Everything's connected within your novel.

Fern, watercolor, 6" x 9" by Robert A. Sloan
Fern, watercolor, 6" x 9" by Robert A. Sloan

#5 of 30 Hubs in 30 Days

Fifth in my series of 30 Hubs in 30 Days, another one on novel writing and editing!
Fifth in my series of 30 Hubs in 30 Days, another one on novel writing and editing!

Character creation starts with naming.

I just finished my first editing pass on The Necromancer's Tale, a light, sweet fantasy novel that isn't quite as silly as Diskworld or quite as grandly epic as the big-series epic fantasies I love. It's a good book, it needs some work to get it from "good rough draft" to "publishable" and send it out. It needed more work because I tried something in creating it back in 2004 that was immensely stupid.

I left out naming half the characters and places till the edit stage, so that I could write faster. I cut corners. I have just found out that is not the corner to cut.

Even if it means halting in the middle of writing the story, name every character or place as you come to it. Sometimes the first idea you had for a name is the very best anyway. 

In editing some other novels I've made name changes. The process of changing a character's name is a huge mess because that name helps define to that character who he or she is. That place name defines how everyone in the world of the book thinks of the place. A rose is a rose, but a rose called an American Beauty is going to tell you something about when it came from, what sort of garden it grew in and probably suggest something allegorical about America and beauty. It's going to say something about theme.

People who get funny names and overcome that to be taken seriously have a type of inner strength different from people who got names that people respected even when they were babies. People who got average names may wind up rising in prominence. There are a lot of Donalds who aren't Trump, a lot of Bills who aren't Gates, probably not as many Baracks who aren't Obama but there will be.

I was skimming news and noticed a sentence about a sports star named Blake Griffin.

I don't follow sports, so I don't know what Blake Griffin does for a living. He has a name that sounds like he belongs in a novel though. Blake's mom wanted people to respect him, look up to him, give him attention, think of him as cool and she gave it a bit of a romantic twist with that in case he came out a bit of a bad boy too, he'd be more forgivable than a Percy. Names have associations and feelings.

Baby naming books are useful for authors. You don't just do it once in a blue moon when you have a new child. You do it every page sometimes in the first part of the novel when you're introducing characters. They walk onstage, you know they are there for a reason that makes sense to you as the author and serves the plot and unless you're the sort of writer who stops and outlines and creates character profiles before introducing them to the story (I'm not), you may not know anything else about them but that name.

For me, when I'm doing it right, character naming becomes character definition, a handle on figuring out what to do with this person who just walked into the story. 

Baby name books are great if I'm writing anything close to the contemporary world and settings that I know. They aren't even that important in a regional setting. If I did a New Orleans novel, I would start naming characters after streets, neighbors, people I met, people I remember and start just shuffling first names and last names till I came up with a group of people who were all New Orleanians, paying attention to the types of names that fit different social groups. I might give the name of a family that owns a funeral parlor to a shop owner and the readers, even if they live there, will have the familiar feeling that maybe this character is a cousin of the people they know. I'd better write him as if he is.

So when writing a "place" novel and the place exists, your best way to research is to know the place. I feel comfortable setting a novel in New Orleans, I know it well enough for that. I could handle San Francisco, I loved it that much. I might want to visit San Francisco again to get a feel of what it's like now though, because it's been twenty years, unless I set the novel in the years I was there. Then it'd have a nice flavor of veracity.

Sometimes I will glance at my bookshelf if I'm fishing for contemporary names and start mangling and mix-matching the names of assorted authors. Cecile Hillbury cust came out of my shelf of how-to-paint references. I didn't alphabetize the books so I could even just grab two at random. But that combination is only an idea and a starting point, because Cecile sounds like someone who's a little classy and maybe a little flirty, and I may want someone who's much more down to earth, Hannah Hillberry is a different image, less French derived.

So there's two ways right off the top of my head for naming contemporary characters. Another is to borrow your friends' names and mangle them. When I base characters on friends, at least if it's on one person in particular, I mention that and ask their permission. Most often they think it's cool and want to find out what they did in the novel. Sometimes they'll get excited and suggest things like "Hey, can I die heroically?" 

"Sure. You're down for it." 

I  have a character portrait in a Nanowrimo friend's science fiction novel because he put out a casting call in the forums and I put my hand up for it. I wound up the psychiatrist on the crew, amusing since I have no PhD in anything but he wasn't me. There's no reason anyone would turn a cripple with bad eyesight into an astronaut if he didn't have some useful mission skills. Being a crying shoulder for friends in real life is a good enough qualification to become a shrink in fiction. He got the coolest power chair too, he wound up rescuing people in it.

Naming a character is a selection process. It's got to be intuitive because there's so much information the name has to carry. It has to fit the psyche of a character capable of performing that role in the plot. 

Characters who have changed their names have probably got some broken family ties. Maybe not all of them but there was a break of some kind between who their parents wanted them to be and who they grew up to be. Characters who do it repeatedly are either frauds and tricksters, or they're finding themselves. Characters who change their name or its spelling during the book are going through a profound change, usually acculturation of some kind into a new community. 

Think of someone going from Rosenthal to Rose -- it may be a change to the last name that happened to the family at Ellis Island.

The right character name feels right.

As soon as it's mentioned, it's easier to picture the character. What she's wearing or what he's holding. How he'll react to what he just walked in on or what she thinks of the other characters. The associations of every common name are so frequent that the ones in the baby name books are shorthand. A girl named Mary probably had a Christian family and may have grown up thinking of herself as a good girl or rebelling against that image. She may also think of herself as normal or ordinary compared to Priscilla.

You know the flavor or type of character you're introducing, so going through one or a dozen or three dozen names for the one that sounds right is a good process. That's part of craft. It takes imagining the scene with Mary walking in to find the body, versus Priscilla walking in to find the body, versus Cecile finding the body. The point of her being there is to find the body, react and get the plot going. She's going to be a suspect in it because she did.

How will she take that? How do you want her to take it? Do you want to turn her into a huge red herring, would it be fun to make sure the body was her threatening stalker ex? What would run through a woman's head at that moment, probably still worried about it and grumbling to herself about how hard it is to scrape him off and whether the protection order is going to do any good, maybe nerving herself up to prosecute if he breaks it one more time -- and then finding him dead. Not getting him dead, just finding him dead. 

Knowing everyone in the world starting with the cops knows she has a good reason to want him that way, yet at the same time having this enormous relief that he's never going to phone her at two in the morning again to beg or demand her to come back. Maybe she's frustrated she didn't get to hit him. An irrational reaction of kicking him while he's harmlessly dead or a responsible decision to phone 911 even if she can't stand him because he's human and might be dying, whether she examines the body to be sure or reaches for the phone, tells worlds about who she is and what's going to happen next.

I write character driven novels. Looking at that snippet of a concept synopsis, I'd probably call her Mary and let her decide what to do, finding out more about their relationship and conflict as she reacts to the situation. How she reacts is going to determine what the cops and the reader think of her. Laughing hysterically and sagging against the wall ranting against him and the irony is a good possibility too, one that may leave people thinking she's a successful avenger.

"I wish I had killed you," in the scene before anyone else gets there would establish her innocence immediately. Her feelings are more than justifiable. Then she serves a different plot purpose and we need to find out who else this jerk motivated or whether he did himself in so as to put her in jail and get back at her on the way out.

Naming and plotting are intimately connected that way. So writing contemporary characters is almost easy because we all have that kind of association with names. Most people do keep their birth names, respond to them and live by some version of the scripts associated with the name. Cecile might be seen as less innocent than Mary. Cecile is used to that. Does Priscilla call herself Priscilla or just Priss? Priss is someone who rejected the formality of her name but still accepts it as part of who she is. 

Maybe our jerk on the floor dated all three of them and they all have reason to hate him.

Now if that's true, you're writing a novel instead of a short story. Mary and Undear John there by themselves could become a short story about irony, innocence and crime. You'd have to come up with some sort of twist ending when she finds out who did kill her ex, but it could be closed in a satisfying ending within five thousand words. Find the body, put Mary at risk as a suspect, don't bring in any complex mystery plot with multiple suspects but once she's in jail fearing for her life, DNA fingers the guy that worked next to her and always loved her who sacrificed his life so that she could be free because she turned him down for a date and he knew he could never have her. Sad sweet little tragedy.

Mary, having learned her lesson about homicidal boyfriends, does not answer his love letters from prison, changes her name to Cecile and moves to another state.

Naming and plotting are two sides of the same thing. So with contemporary characters, you do know from the beginning what their names imply. You can heighten it with allegorical names. Blake Griffin does sound rather grand and noble, a dark knight, not quite white-knight paladin squeaky but either a very sympathetic bad guy or a bad-boy good guy. Either way he's probably a major character and girls like him. 

What happens when you're doing fantasy and have to make up the whole culture behind all the names? I ran into that with The Necromancer's Tale and in every fantasy novel I've ever written.

Fantasy novel naming

First off, in fantasy novels especially, you have to come up with what Paris is too as well as what the characters' names are, and they should sound either foreign or medieval. They need to have a flavor that's not the ordinary. The natives of the fantasy novel, even if Mary stumbled out of reality through a shimmering fairy gate in the park as she was running away from the police, never to find out that Percy killed her stalker, should have names like Gawain or Parapridani or Elloran or something and yet to make the book rich and feel real, you probably shouldn't have all three of those in the same one unless the city is a port and each of them comes from a different kingdom.

Swiping ethnic names from foreign languages and countries is an old standby. A few decades ago it was much more impressive to use Russian or Hindu character names creatively re-spelled, maybe phonetically spelled. It sounded like they came from a different world. They did, culturally. It'll still work.

Today though, people are immensely more familiar with those cultures and so it helps to have enough background in the root culture you're robbing to bring across some of their folklore and ideas, some of their values and ways of life and then blend them in order to create these fantasy countries. Using them exactly as they are is going to give an impression a group of Pakistani refugees moved into your fantasy world, met the dragons and settled there to maintain a Pakistani way of life -- do that and you might as well also make them Islamic and keep that whole flavor. 

Or blend them with other ethnic nationalities creatively ,a little of this and that, and you start having something that feels real to the readers because their kids go to school with the kid of a Vietnamese girl that married a black GI and the Pakistani family that owns a shop nearby. It starts to feel meta-American when cultures blend. It still needs a little bit of fiddling with the names and syllables so that it's not precisely Pakistani or Polish, so that you can feel free to create the polytheist culture that worships a moon goddess and has a thousand years of history involving dragons.

This can either be worked out by writing all that history or discovering it with the characters.

Sometimes syllable hash works too. That's an esthetic approach to naming. It works very well. There is no Erdinon ethnic family in your neighborhood among your readers coming up to explain, offended, that they are not moon worshipers at all but Eastern Orthodox or Islamic. When you need to create the whole culture, the naming convention needs to be self consistent but drift a lot farther out from the types of names readers are familiar with.

Raiding historical sources is wonderful. I have a three inch thick popular history of 14th century France from which I've grabbed French and English medieval names for over a decade, because so many minor nobles, soldiers, clergy, ladies and other historical characters,were mentioned in it for a paragraph and then wandered off. They can be jumbled mix-and-match as easily as the author names on my bookshelf and I react to the names emotionally within a context at least related to the modern name associations. Some of them are modern names.

Mixing that with something completely different or coming up with syllable hash gives a medieval flavor. But there are patterns in names as well as associations.

So doing the Syllable Hash method isn't random. It has to have a consistent set of cultural associations that the author makes up. Maybe there's a suffix or a prefix to a name that makes it sound like a woman's name or a man's. This is an important one for readers, because the book's more comfortable and pleasant if by the time three or four characters are mentioned, they can tell whether the next one is a girl or a boy by name. 

Then there's the naming tradition in America -- a first name and probably a middle name that are personal and chosen by parents, a last name that's a family name passed down through the male line. Your novel might have the family name first the way it is in Asian countries. Your characters from a matriarchal culture may have the family name passed on in the maternal line. This is where anthropology can be a ton of fun.

Anthropology opens up a wide host of other patterns that are consistent and easy to understand once you decide which one to use. Maybe children are given one syllable from their mother's name and one syllable from their father's name so that names pass on from both parents and which syllable gets given to the child is based on which branch of the family is higher ranking. That system would tell you a person's status and family connections in one name.

Fitzgerald and other names with Fitz like Fitzroyal and Fitzhenry is a medieval construction that says "Gerald's illegitimate son." Gerald was willing to admit it and didn't argue about it, the kid may even get some patronage but he's not one of the heirs of Gerald. Is there something like that in your world?

I usually think of these things on the fly because I'm world building while naming, so I'll do the first name or two on what feels right and start looking for connections between them. It's a combination between things like deciding naming patterns or deriving them from accidental cool things that happened while doing syllable hash. Names that start with vowels are girls. It can be something like that and it can happen by accident but look good and stay.

That's an intuitive method of character naming.

What I had to edit out in The Necromancer's Tale has turned into a concept for another novel or story, a parody called Generica. I had the Abbey of St. Lookitup, near Mount Nameit, in Namethekingdom, and a monk named Brother Checktheblog because I'd written a little short story about the main character's youth raised by monks where I had named characters the way I usually did, on the spot, with vaguely medieval-feel names.

It took two days and a lot of corrections to make sure that nowhere in the novel did I still have an uncorrected Abbey of St. Lookitup or mention of St. Lookitup. The more of those I found, the loonier it felt and the more I laughed, so I'll just put that entire naming convention aside for Generica and the people in it will take it for granted as normal.

I could use naming like that in a Western-feel science fiction novel too. Towns in the West get names like Truth or Consequences, Hell, Stop Here, Dead Horse, Go Away and You Name It. I haven't checked if all of those are real but I do know at least two of them are because I know people who've been there. None of the rest would surprise me on a map.

Looking at the medieval names, one pattern emerges that's very good for fantasy novels. The descriptive name is a pattern that's nearly generic but has a lot more flavor. The Blue River is just translating the Danube into English. There is a wonderful naming pattern for a fantasy city that I'll use someday that's just taking all the French names in the French Quarter and translating them to English.

I lived on the Street of the Young Prince near the Street of Dark Wine and the Street of Strong Drink ... if I described the French Quarter exactly as it was when I lived there, I had something very similar to a city Conan might have come in to party and get rolled and have adventures. It was pure swashbuckler stuff. Conqueror Square did have a whole lot of fortune tellers, artists, clowns, musicians, mimes and other colorful riff-raff, I was one of them. There are magic shops where you can buy spells on the Street of Dark Wine and the Street of Strong Drink and the Street of the Royals. 

Perfect place for rogues and brawlers and adventurers. Just put torches for streetlights and leave out the cars, there it is, a beautiful place.

You can do this with names too. Many English names are job names. Also French and other European names, they're just in those languages. Potter, Tailor, Wagoner, Miller, a host of medieval jobs still turn up in roll calls in every grade school. Put them in a medieval world though, and they fit better if Mr. Potter has relatives who own kilns and sell pots and plates.

Naming characters in a fantasy context does take more work, but it's not hard once you get the feel of the novel. I do it more by paying attention to the feel of my first few random choices and then staying consistent with them, following those associations. It's good for continuity. 

I'll write about continuity in another Hub. For now, have fun naming your characters. Just think, when you finally do become a parent, you'll be so used to the contents of that baby naming book that you'll know exactly what to call him or her in order to give your kids a great shot at having a good life and being treated well by people who don't know them.


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