The Strategic Art of Naming a Character by Marie Lavender

The Strategic Art of Naming a Character

by Marie Lavender

  
 
One of the most challenging parts of being a fiction (or creative nonfiction) writer is making the right choices about certain aspects of the writing process. Creativity is key with character development, yet we also want those individuals to be authentic, relatable to readers. That’s why we sometimes find character names a tad difficult to pin down.
 
In real life, people are interesting. They have all sort of names, right?

Plus, every writer is different. We each have our own process, of course, but for those who could use a few tips – and for book readers who might be curious about the approach to character designation – I’ll include some advice here.

1.      Know Your Character.

This is more complicated than it sounds. There have been plenty of times when I didn’t know the ins and outs of a character until I finished the character worksheet. Knowing these various nuances of their personality, all the traits that make them three-dimensional – realistic to readers – can help you choose the best name for your character.


captblack76, 123RF

2.      Consider His or Her Background.

Your character’s ethnicity and culture will likely affect your decision. Even if the individual only has some Irish roots, for example, there would’ve been an Irish surname somewhere. Or perhaps a parent chose a foreign first name or middle name on a whim, something unique for their child. There is a reason behind every name. 

Think about where they live, or the location they came from as well. If your story has a historical angle, look up popular names for that time period

 
One great resource, among others, for determining a culturally derived name is behindthename.com. I also use surnames.behindthename.com when I need to find a good last name for a character. In any case, ethnicity may affect how you name a character, especially if you’re focused on authenticity.

3.      Appearance.

You may not think it matters, but sometimes a character’s physical appearance can be a strong indicator for how he or she should be named. The way the person dresses, certain mannerisms, among the more obvious traits such as hair and eye color, may have a significant effect on the naming process.
Does this man look like a Henry?  

 
Not that we should make such assumptions, but come on, let's face it. People tend to do so.

There is also the option of good irony. Imagine having a Gallant who wasn’t so polite in Highlights for Children.

4.      Check and Double-check for Redundancies.

During the development of a story, we don’t always consider that a name could’ve been used before. Often minor characters’ names will pop up again and again in separate stories, and that’s okay. Unless you’re writing a series – then you’ll need everything perfect across the board –it usually won’t make a difference. As for secondary characters that get the spotlight later in the series, they should get special names too.

What you should focus on, for the most part, are the names of main characters. You don’t want an Ethan in one story, and another Ethan in a different book. It confuses your audience, especially if they’ve been following your work for a while. Pay special attention to surnames – the more common ones in particular. It’s so easy to stumble into a repetitive name without even intending the mistake. 


I don’t know about you, but my memory isn’t quite what it used to be! I have to be extra careful not to overuse certain names, and I’ll switch something out now and then during the editing process. 

5.      Be Creative, Not Crazy.

I am a big fan of distinctive character names. But don’t select one which is impossible to pronounce or understand. You’ll see this often in fantasy and sci-fi tales. Try not to alienate your reader, however. Be loyal to the originality of your characters, but also keep them relatable. 


If you are writing in one of the aforementioned genres, I think using a strange surname would work just as well, as long as it’s not mentioned throughout the book. And if you toss in a bunch of perplexing, crazy names for all the characters in the story, you can likely expect your readers to fling the book across the room in frustration.


Ouch…and if it's an ebook, hope they don’t kill their Kindle! ;)

Just be careful about throwing in farfetched names. Use unique titles sparingly

6.      Write First, Ask Questions Later.

When I am truly at a loss for a good character name, I will either do the usual he/she personal pronouns for a while, or I’ll implement a temporary name until I can find a better one. 


The point here is to write out the story first. Don’t get hung up on the details. You can always fix it later. Nothing is ever final, at least until you’ve submitted a manuscript to a publisher, or the book has already gone to print. 

7.      Think Outside the Box.

Doesn’t this fit in the ‘be creative, not crazy’ tip? Not exactly. What I’d like to suggest here is the notion of approaching the name creation process a little differently. Some options could be…

a)      Spell a common name in a new way.


b)     Try scrambling.

Write the full name of a person you know, or even a character you’ve used before. Jumble the letters around until you’ve created a different name entirely. Would this fit one of your characters, perhaps?

c)      Use an abstract noun.

Have you ever considered using an abstract noun to describe your character’s personality? These could become a defining attribute while also naming a character.

Some examples include Hope, Faith, Charity, Mercy, Patience, Prudence, and the list just goes on.

d)     An occupation as a name.

Huh, how would that work?

Well…there’s always Hunter, Mason, Piper, Taylor, Archer, Page, or Deacon, to name a few.

e)      Make a character collage.

Create a collage with pictures you find online. Every photo should represent a facet of your character, not only their physical appearance, but possible hobbies, strengths and weaknesses. 


Can you glean a name from this storyboard?

f)      Other options.

The alternatives are limitless! Use a random name generator. Or, think of one of your main character's major traits, and use that as inspiration. Every name has a meaning.

8.      Every Project Will Be Different.

Approach the naming process in whichever way works best for that character and story. Start out with an intriguing name, and let the tale flow.

Maybe Felicia (you can choose any name, of course) stumbles across a magical library.

Fabrizio Magoni, Unsplash

Or, Character A needs Character B’s help in a big chef competition. What makes these two people tick? In what ways are they unique? Which names might fit your characters?

Sometimes a character will surprise you. You may not completely understand them until you’ve finished writing the book. Then the name you’ve chosen rings true. It’s so right that you wonder how it could’ve been anything else. 

Bruce Mars, pexels.com

It doesn’t matter how you decide to approach naming your character, just as long as the name fits. So…give me your impression as a writer, or even as a book reader. 

Are there names that bothered you in stories you read? Yes or no? And, why? Was a character’s name hard to pronounce, or far too complicated? Or did the author do well in his or her choice? 

What techniques do you, or would you, use to come up with the perfect character name? Let me know…we’ll start a discussion in the comments below.

And, of course, happy reading! :)
 
 

Blogger Bio

Multi-genre author of Victorian romance, UPON YOUR RETURN, and 23 other books. Reached the Top 10 Authors list on AuthorsDB.com for the last 4 years. Featured interview in the January 2018 issue of Womelle Magazine. The Heiresses in Love Trilogy made the TOP 10 on the Anthology category on the 2018 P&E Readers' Poll, and BLOOD INSTINCTS reached TOP 10 status in the Romance category. The Heiresses in Love Trilogy and DIRECTIONS OF THE HEART both reached the semi-finalist round in the 2018 AuthorsDB Book Cover Contest. Voted TOP BLOGGER for 2018 on the Romance Lives Forever Blog. TOP 20 Authors of 2018 on Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews blog. DIRECTIONS OF THE HEART was nominated and made it past the first round in the 2018 Author Academy Awards. UPON YOUR LOVE and THE MISSING PIECE placed in the TOP 10 on the 2017 P&E Readers' Poll. DIRECTIONS OF THE HEART was nominated for the 2017 Reader's Choice Awards. The I Love Romance Blog became a finalist in StartDating DK's Romance Blog Awards of 2017. ILRB landed on Feedspot’s 2017 TOP 100 Novel Blogs and TOP 100 Romance Blogs. DIRECTIONS OF THE HEART placed in the TOP 10 Books of 2017 on Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews blog. TOP 20 Authors of 2017 on Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews blog. Mystery Blogger Award for 2017. A to Z Blog Challenge Survivor in 2016. March 2016 Empress of the Universe title - winner of the "Broken Heart" themed contest and the "I Love You" themed contest on Poetry Universe. SECOND CHANCE HEART and A LITTLE MAGICK placed in the TOP 10 on the 2015 P&E Readers' Poll. Nominated in the TRR Readers' Choice Awards for Winter 2015. Poetry winner of the 2015 PnPAuthors Contest. The Versatile Blogger Award for 2015. Honorable Mention in the 2014 BTS Red Carpet Book Awards. Finalist and Runner-up in the 2014 MARSocial's Author of the Year Competition. Honorable mention in the January 2014 Reader's Choice Award. Liebster Blogger Award for 2013, 2014 and 2016. 2013 and 2014 Amazon Bestseller Ranking for UPON YOUR RETURN. Winner of the Great One Liners Contest on the Directory of Published Authors.
 
Marie Lavender lives in the Midwest with her family and two cats. She has been writing for a little over twenty-five years. She has more works in progress than she can count on two hands. Since 2010, Marie has published 24 books in the genres of historical romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, dramatic fiction, fantasy, science fiction, mystery/thriller, literary fiction and poetry. She writes adult fiction, as well as occasional stories for children, and has recently started some young adult fiction. She has also contributed to several anthologies. Her current published series are The Heiresses in Love Series, The Eternal Hearts Series, The Magick Series, The Code of Endhivar Series and The Blood at First Sight Series.




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2 comments:

  1. I use all of the techniques you mentioned, plus this one: the zodiac. Once I know a character's birthday, I check out the personality traits of his/her astrological sign. If the character is born on the cusp, it makes him or her even more interesting! Often, after reviewing the traits, a perfect name will suggest itself.

    Fun post, Marie, with lots of concrete tips for naming characters. Shared.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Linda! I use astrological charts to figure out the character's birthday too... ;)

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