Finding the right name for your character

Janaka Dharmasena → in Toys

I believe that it is human nature to want to ‘name’ things: our children, our pets, our homes, our cars, and for some enthusiasts—our body parts. But as writers we have that extra responsibility of naming of our characters, or in other words, the living, breathing, souls that infiltrate our stories. Believe it or not, it’s a tricky concept. It’s more than just picking a name off the top of our heads; in fact, the right name, in many ways, is fifty percent good characterization. Nondescript names (unless they are intentionally so) often do not fly. That’s not to say that common, everyday names don’t work in fiction, but they MUST suit the characters on many different levels.

See this link from Writer’s Digest before reading on.

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-7-rules-of-picking-names-for-fictional-characters?et_mid=576922&rid=3058805

Here are some famous examples from literature:

Guess the bookworm…Eugene (Gene) or Phineas (Finny)?
Guess the cunning tramp…Oliver or (Artful) Dodger?
Scout: A tomboy or a Miss Priss?

That being said, would Atticus Finch be as memorable if his name were Joe Jones? What if Holden Caufield’s name was Bob Green? Think of your favorite book. What do you remember most? The plot? The descriptive language? Or the characters? Now take that one step further…the character’s names, perhaps? I guarantee the characters you remember most were not just given the ‘best’ names, but were given the names that best suited the character.

I’ll give an example of my own. Some years back, I wrote a short story called “Prom Night.” Since the story was rejected many times over  and is basically going nowhere, I feel comfortable using it as my character-naming tutorial guinea pig. But first a brief summary to better understand the nature of the characters:

On the night of prom, two dateless high school juniors go to a local pool hall in hopes of finding some adventure. Girl # 1 is on a mission to make up for the fact that wasn’t invited to prom. She is abrasive, bossy, and insecure. Girl #2 is more subdued, level-headed, and actually was asked to the prom, but didn’t accept. It can be surmised by a discerning reader that Girl # 2 turned down her invitation to keep her best friend, Girl # 1, from being alone that night.

At the pool hall, the girls run into a young man (approximately aged 28) who they’ve clearly met a few times in the past. Girl # 1 and this guy have a mild flirtation going on. Girl # 2 disapproves, but generally keeps quiet, being that Girl # 1 will snap at her if she shares too many precautionary opinions.

Later in the night, the young man takes the two girls to a park. He and Girl # 1 go around a bend, and they begin to fool around. At first, Girl # 1 is a willing participant, but when she shows hesitation to go further, the young man becomes enraged at her deception of experience. He takes off, leaving both girls behind.

Girl # 1, humiliated and distraught, seeks solace in Girl #2 who has overheard part of the incident. Girl # 2 pretends like nothing happened, and miraculously Girl # 1 softens as they discuss plans for having a sleepover.

Oh chill out, I told you it got rejected about a zillion times. The plot is not the point…it’s the names. Despite the story’s flaws, I still say I picked good monikers for the characters. Here is my reasoning:

“Tina.” Otherwise known as Girl # 1. The name has sharp angles. It’s the name of a someone with extremes. The “T” sound conjures up words such as “tough,” “terrible,” and “touchy.” At the same time, it ends in an “a” giving it that eternal feminine ring. Not classically feminine per se, but certainly in spit-fire girly-girl kind of way. This attitude reflects the character to a (no pun intended) capital “Tee.”

“Carey.” Or, better yet, Girl # 2. This is an endearing, yet less remarkable name. It’s a name that’s easy to say and easy to like. It “carries” one along in a sense. It’s smooth sailing; it’s easygoing. Just like the character. It’s a good, solid name that can be easily overlooked for its wonderful simplicity. Hence, Tina doesn’t often appreciate her friend Carey’s efforts. The spelling is significant too. It says that this character is special, different…but you might have look a bit closer.

“Scott.” The young(ish) man. This is a name that’s easy for an infatuated young girl to repeat over and over again, to write in her notebooks inside giant red hearts. It’s a rather unassuming name, and in that sense, it’s essentially a clean slate. A writer could probably turn a “Scott” into any kind character she wants him to be. Here’s my thing though…it’s not exactly a little boy’s name (such as Tommy or Timmy, or in this case, Scotty) but it’s not really…a man’s name either. This is precisely this character’s agenda. He’s no kid. Twenty-eight years old with mature needs messing with a sixteen year old girl? And that being said, well, he’s no man either.

“Chompers.” He was not mentioned in the summary; mostly because he does not play a huge role in the story. In fact, I’d considered plucking him from the page, but I just couldn’t do it. He adds of touch of humor to the otherwise sad thematic premises. He is the owner of the pool hall. An older man who speaks in sentence fragments, is un-amused , yet undeterred by Tina’s nastiness that chews on toothpicks and absently reads magazines up at the counter. The girls name him for his giant, yellow veneers. It is the perfect “inside joke” for two teenage girls. They have no clue as to his actual name, so instead they name him for an unfortunate physical characteristic. FYI, it’s later revealed that his name is “Herb,” which of course Tina finds hilarious enough to make a marijuana reference  as in  ‘I bet he smokes a lot of Herb too’

Whatever method you use to name your characters, please note that it holds a lot more importance than you might think. In many ways, just like your children, you’re naming them for life. I’d love to hear your methods for choosing character names! Feel free to comment below.

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19 Comments

Filed under Books and Literature, Characters, Writing Process, Writing Tips

19 responses to “Finding the right name for your character

  1. Great post, great advice! And I like your story. 😉

    I’m plotting my first dystopian, so I had to come up with a bunch of names that would fit a futuristic story. I love working with name generators (just Google it) to stimulate my imagination–especially the one that lets you set the obscurity factor. I came up with a whole list of males and females to choose from, then narrowed it down from there.

    Popular names lists are another option (http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/), and are great if your plotting a historical since you can choose the year. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Melissa…at least someone likes my story! Thanks for the links. The name generator sounds interesting. A lot of times the perfect name lands in my head, but other times it doesn’t. That’s why this resources are so important. 🙂

  3. I love names, always have. I would have more children, just to name them!
    Names matter, for sure. I also love it when you find out that a character name also means something–not when it’s obvious, but a nice little extra that you happen to find out after reading the book.

    • Hi True Stories, thanks for stopping by. I agree…the process of naming characters often happens subconsciously…it’s great! I think the writing process often works that way…which is why I love it so much 🙂

  4. Another interesting post.
    I agree that names are very important in a story, although I sometimes wonder if a name that feels just right to me doesn’t have other associations for a reader. I guess there would be nothing I could do about that — if Scott was an ex-boyfriend or an older brother that reader might already have some preconceptions about that name.
    Anyway, names for me are a game of hide and seek with my subconscious. Sometimes I’ll pitch a letter out there, and write the planning words with just the letter in place of the character’s name. Maybe that’s because I need to find out more about the character before I name him.
    But then once in while a name will just fall out of the sky, first and last name all at once even, and I know I have to write this person’s story, although I know nothing more than his name!
    The path to finding names can sometimes make writing feel more like magic than craft, as if I’m conjuring up real people …

  5. I’ve had a character name change half way through writing a novel. I didn’t even notice. I guess my character didn’t like the name I chose. When I proofread, I found the change. Then I had to go back and think about why this happened and what name to use. I went with the new one.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kristina. I think your character was telling you something! I could go on about the rules and tips for naming characters, but often they will just take care of it themselves. It’s so amazing, isn’t it?

  6. I just finished my first draft of my second novel. When I started writing the main character had one name, but the further I got into the story I knew it was wrong. I left it until about page 275 when it hit me who she really was… even she knew before I did. I didn’t bother wondering why this happened it just does in the process of writing.

    • Hi Brenda…thanks for stopping by. I love it when character names just appear out of the blue. I truly believe that 99% of the time it happens that way…when it doesn’t initially (just like you said) it auto corrects itself.

  7. How’s this for a name for the editor who rejected your story? Blind Betty. Dim Dan. Clueless Cathy. That’s just to say I liked your story. 🙂 And this post. I always put deep thought into my character names. Most times, they seem to name themselves, you know? Like, a name will just pop into my head, usually when writing their dialog, as if they’re introducing themselves – by name!

  8. How about Super Sylver? Thanks for you compliments! Wish you were my editor 🙂 They DO seem to name themselves…some of them come completely natural, others I have to think about for a while, but often will land on just the right name. So amazing.

  9. Great post! I have been through a few situations where I get stuck on a letter in the alphabet and can’t break away! Another issue I have had, I wanted to force one name to work just to realize halfway through the book he or she became another regardless and without me realizing – that’s embarrassing. I read another comment from above and stopped to think about names. We are thinking of names for a new baby. Someone asked me what were some options and the names I loved she hated for various, mostly stupid, reasons. I don’t think we can win, but a little help might just get us to the right name anyway.

    Great blog. Gutsy to share your story, but glad you did 🙂 Too bad no publishers could see the value. What a world.

    • Hi Michelle…getting stuck on a letter, yes! That’s happened to me before as well. I actually like when that happens, because it gives me a head start. I think it’s mostly intuitive anyway.

      Baby names…I’ll bet it’s a hassle. This one likes this, but that one doesn’t like this one, etc. In some ways though, all the arguing helps narrow name the names in the search of the perfect one 🙂

      Thank you for your encouragement on my story! You’re right…this world is crazy.

  10. Great advice for choosing names! I’ve never put that much thought into it. I usually look on a “name your baby” website for the year the character was born, and just choose a name that I like and that I think fits the character. Although in Skye Blue, I somewhat built the story around her name!

  11. Thanks Nicki…yeah what’s great about it is often I’ll do what you do…pick a name based on a year, etc. but it often turns out that the name suits the character anyway! 🙂

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