An Esmerelda by any other name would be just as sweet, wouldn’t she? I think not.
What we name our characters is important. If you’re like me, the story swirling around in your head can’t begin to mesh until you’ve found just the right name. Here are some tips.
While many people these days give their kids any name they like with no regard to ethnic background (Siobhan Wong comes to mind as an odd combination of Irish/Chinese!), if you, as an author, choose similar combinations, you need a real reason why that matters to the story. And you’ll need to provide hints.
Writing a real world story set in, say, the northwoods of Wisconsin? A little research will tell you that this area was first settled by folks of Norwegian ancestry. Does that mean you can’t put other ethnic groups there? Of course not. But do keep in mind that the neighborhood, including made-up business names, should contain a balance of names that fit the area.
3. Year of Birth
If you’re writing stories set in our real world, think about what names were popular the year your character was born. If you choose to name a person born in 1995 Gertrude, be aware that you have some explaining to do. It’s easy to search baby name sites for popularity in certain decades or years.
4. First letters
Some authors gravitate toward names that start with a certain letter, populating a story with guys like Bob, Bill, Brian, and Bert. This is confusing to the reader. Use a wide range of the alphabet for every story. A time to use matching letters might be for secondary characters that ‘go together.’ Stan and Serena were the pastor and his wife in one of my novels.**Unsure how to lay this out? Check the bottom of the post!
5. Name rhythms
Not only watch the first letters of the names, but the rhythms they provide. Don’t use all one syllable, or all two syllable. Watch your name list for similar endings: Bevan, Kevin, Raven. Those would pass the ‘first letter’ test, but not this one!
- Why name a character Siobhan Wong? 8 Tips for Naming Characters: click to tweet
- Is naming characters hard? Consider name rhythms, year-of-birth, and more: click to tweet
Do check the meaning of the name you’re considering. This may not be a dealbreaker, but in some cases it could be. On the plus side, knowing the definition may help with character building.
7. Name recognition
Is the name you’re considering that of a famous person? Certain names, or combinations of them, will send readers down a particular path. Adolf may be a poor name for your lovable hero. Naming your hero William and your heroine Kate is also a bad idea.
If you have a medium to large cast of characters, you’re challenging your readers’ ability to keep track of everyone’s names, especially if some of the characters come and go. Limit adding nicknames for them as well, and if you must, keep them as close to the usual name as possible. My novella’s main character is Lyssa, but her roommate calls her Lys. I think that works!
With all that in mind, how do you choose names? A couple of baby name books won’t go amiss, but there also plenty of online sites. If you’re looking for a specific ethnicity, google ‘baby name girl chinese’ for example. If you’re looking for names for a character in her fifties, google ‘girl name 1950’ to get lists of names that were popular in that era. For general baby name sites, check out some of these–of course, there are plenty of others!
**Click here for my A-Z Character Name Template. Feel free to download it and duplicate it as many times as you’d like, or make your own in Word or Excel.
As you name characters, drop the name into the corresponding slot. This gives you a birds’ eye view of your naming conventions and will help you spread the wealth throughout the alphabet. I have one for each novel I’ve written.
What tips do you have for naming characters? Is there anything I’ve missed?
(Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)