Naming characters is my favorite part of writing fiction, without a doubt. I have a weird name, which may be the source of my attraction to baby name books and websites (my fave at the moment is Nameberry, FYI). I “borrowed” the book my parents used to choose my name, and it’s still sitting on the bookshelf next to me 15 years later. I checked out name books from the library all the time as a kid before investing in one of my own during university.

I love finding just the right character name. I believe main characters name themselves 99% of the time, but that’s a whole other blog post. I primarily use my name books and online resources to find names for side characters or places. Scrivener has an awesome name generator, and I’ve turned to the Fantasy Name Generator a time or two.

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I recently read the fabulous book The Name Therapist by Duana Taha, and it got me thinking about how I name my characters. It’s a fantastic book and I highly recommend it, but for now here are five of my best tips for naming fictional characters.

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Timing Counts

Names go in and out of fashion, evolve, and occasionally skyrocket to stratospheric popularity, so it’s important to be aware of naming trends that were relevant at the time and place your character was born. A century ago, Ashley and Evelyn were male names, and Madison was a surname only. A character born in the 1930s wouldn’t be named Kamia or Kayden. A kid born in the late seventies through mid-eighties is statistically likely to be named Jennifer or Jason. In Victorian times, children were routinely named in honor of elder relatives. There was even a system dictated by birth order.

Picking names that are particular to a place and time adds authenticity to a story because it contextualizes the character within an established social framework.

To give a real life example, let’s say you meet a 40-year-old man who says to you, “Hi, my name is Jayden.” That’s a name that has become popular only in the last decade. When you hear it, you probably imagine a grade-schooler. So when you hear it from an older adult, you would probably assume that he has changed it from something else within the last decade — perhaps because he didn’t identify with his old name, because of gender transition, or because he simply liked Jayden better. But it would give you pause for a second, because we unconsciously develop ideas about what names go with certain [age] groups.

Consider Family Structure

Parents (or whoever is naming the child) often run with a theme when it comes to their offsprings’ names. They might choose names of a particular ethnic or national origin, names with the same number of syllables, or names that just “sound pleasant” when said in conjunction. For example, “These are my kids, Michael and Sarah.” It’s rarer to see sibsets with discordant names, for example: “These are my kids, Anit, Samantha, and Vladimir.” You’d probably wonder if the kids in the latter group were all international adoptees. Multiples, in particular, are more likely to have names that start with the same letter, rhyme, or have an identical number of syllables. Example: Terrence and Thomas.

Unique Spellings are a Trend

Thirty years ago, if you wanted to name your kid Jennifer you spelled it Jennifer. It rarely entered peoples’ heads that there was any benefit to choosing an “original” spelling for a common name. Now, finding ways to “mix it up” with name spellings is a popular way to make every child a special little snowflake. Like the name Michelle, but think it’s not unique enough? Go with Mishaelle. Naming a kid in honor of Grandpa Thomas, but want him to feel like his own person? Slap an extra S on the end.

I’ve seen the same trend creep into publishing, with fictional characters having increasingly farfetched names or common names with rare spellings. It’s important to remember that this is a trend, as new and definable as the recent popularity of Nevaeh and Kade. Decades from now, people will look back on this time as the era when everyone was shoving extra vowels into names for uniqueness’s sake. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but bear it in mind if you want your book to have that “classic” appeal and stand the test of time. People may not identify with the urge to give kids “unique” names forever.

Have Mercy on your Audiobook Narrator

This one may apply more to traditionally published authors who sell their audio rights, and I never thought it would apply to me as an indie — yet it did. So consider the pronounceability of your character and place names, especially if you write fantasy. Names like Caeliyreine and Symbalewenne may look cool on paper, but your readers will mentally skip over the pronunciation rather than figure it out, and your audiobook narrator will want to strangle you.

Don’t get too Hung Up on Name Meanings

You may want to choose a name according to its meaning — mystical, strong, intelligent, noble, etc. — because it may seem like a vehicle to imbuing a character with that quality. 99% of the time, I think this is a wasted effort. Aside from the rare naming/linguistic geek (like me), most readers won’t know or appreciate the meaning behind your characters’ names. If the message gets lost in translation, you’re not effectively communicating with that character’s name, and the choice becomes moot. It’s okay to choose a name based on meaning for your own enjoyment, but don’t bank on other people grasping the definition.

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