Say My Name: How To Create Realistic, Yet Memorable Names For Your Characters
Any fan of the Harry Potter books and/or movie series should recognize how important a well-chosen name for a character is. After all, would Draco Malfoy been as convincingly suspicious had he been named John Larson? Similarly, it is hard to imagine that Luna Lovegood would have seemed as mystical without a rather dreamy name.
Names don’t have to be unusual, however, to be impactful. Depending on what kind of story you are telling, a main character named Charles Goldstein might be appropriate. Even a more common name such as John Smith might be what your story needs, though perhaps you should consider giving this character a nickname to make him more distinctive.
There is also the possibility you will select an ironically tame name for a character who is anything but docile. One example of this in popular media is the sorcerer in “Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail” who is named Tim. Similarly, you might want to have an unusually tall character who is nicknamed Tiny or Peanut.
Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter movies
A writer can approach creating the names of his or her characters in numerous ways. One way is to start developing the character without a name with the hope that an obvious name will eventually present itself. This can be a marvelously intuitive and roundabout way to get to know your character, and this can work if done properly. For instance, you may have described your character in such detail you know what brand of gum he chews and the size of the mole on his left cheek before you realize that he must have a less common name like Jasper or Turk because of the many peculiarities in his character. It’s also possible to sketch an unconventional, colorful character who has an ordinary name they both hate and which does not suit them. In other words, your task isn’t merely about finding names for your characters which suit them; it is also about diving into the cases where the names of the characters do not seem to fit.
Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands, another well-named character
Another way to create names for your character is by going online to websites such as www.babycenter.com to look up popular first names. Write down twenty names—ten for girls and ten for boys—from the most popular lists, and then proceed to pull out a phone book and write down twenty last names from a random page. The first names can then be paired with the last names in many combinations. You can also write down possible full names—meaning a first, middle, and last name—for each character with this exercise. This exercise isn’t guaranteed to produce the name of a future character, but it does provide a helpful way to grease your creative wheel, so to speak, and think about names in a more flexible way.
If you would rather do your research outside, visiting a local cemetery is a wonderful way to get name ideas. Moreover, if you are setting your story in a certain town or part of the country, visiting a cemetery in this town or part of the country will make you more aware of the common last names in this area. While you don’t have to have characters with these common last names, it would be helpful to note patterns in the last names to help make your character’s last name more believable. For instance, a character named Jeffry Goldberg may be less believable if your story takes place in rural North Dakota—where mostly Norwegians and Germans settled—yet around New York City, where there is a larger concentration of citizens with Jewish heritage, this name would seem more probable.
Luna Lovegood's name suits her
The setting of your story should also help you determine how likely your character will have two first names. For instance, a female character from Mississippi is more likely to be named Betty Sue than a female character from Maine. This isn’t to say that people with two first names don’t appear in many settings; it is, however, important to realize where they are more likely to appear in order to increase the believability of your story.
Still another way to name your characters is to dig into the backstory behind their name. This may mean anything from deciding that this character’s parents fell in love while studying abroad in Ireland, and this is what prompted them to name their first daughter Ealga, a Celtic name which means noble and brave.
What a name means is another factor to consider when you are naming your characters. This is especially true if you are writing an allegory in which the names of your characters are symbolic. One of the most famous examples of this is the character named Christian in John Bunyan’s allegorical work The Pilgrim’s Progress. Knowing the meaning of your character’s name can work in several ways. The first (and perhaps most obvious) way is that you will want to choose a name whose meaning fits the character. For instance, if you want to create a strong-willed and determined male character, you may want to consider naming him something like Emmett, a name which means powerful. On the other hand, you may want to explore the irony of certain names—and surely you’ve encountered such instances in your own life—by having a depressed character named Joy or an overly serious character named Jilly Thumpel.
Legolas: another well-named character
Best character name
Which character do you think has the best, most compelling name?
Character names can also be formed by paying closer attention to the names of people you know. While generally you shouldn’t use the exact name of a person you know for a character, if you meet an affable young man named Blaze who made an impression on you, there is no rule saying you can’t use this as a name for one of your characters. Furthermore, by paying closer attention to the names of those you know, you have rich material to think about how much (and sometimes how little) names influence who people become.
I’ve been interested in names for decades now, and perhaps I am slightly biased in this area. Then again, pause to consider how compelling the character Legolas from The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings would have been had he been named Skip. Moreover, I wonder how popular Herman Melville’s Moby Dick would be if the opening line were “Call me Pete” instead of “Call me Ishmael.”
These suggestions are by no means comprehensive, yet I hope they encourage you to explore the names you give your characters.