Saturday, January 24, 2009

Naming characters

Are you any good at naming characters? It's something I struggle with.

At the moment I've got a main character called Natasha in a short story I'm writing. I know this is the wrong name for her but I'm not sure what the right name is. My stalled novel has had at least three changes of the main character's name and the only way I could be sure I'd made the last change is if I give up on the story altogether.

If you like naming characters then you might like to pop over to Bevie's blog and offer him some help with ten little muses he wants to name.

You might also want to offer me a few hints on how you go about choosing names.


Anonymous said...

I love naming secondary characters. Easy-peasy.

Main characters - not so much. Names are almost a religion with me, and if I get the wrong one, I'm stalled. Even naming my kids was a spiritual quest, seeking out who they were and discovering their names. My son I wasn't certain of til he was actually born and in my arms.

I'm digressing. It's early in the States; I need coffee. But it's a good topic :) and I hadn't popped over in a while. *waves*

Sarah Laurenson said...

Names are sometimes easy and sometimes not. In my current WIP, the MC is Tommy. Not very inventive. And there seems to be a glut of Timmy's and Tommy's in the slush. Not sure if I will change his name, but that should be easy later with a global search and replace. It just has to be 2 syllables and not begin with a G. Weird, huh?

My other WIP that I'm sort of working on right now has names gleaned from a dream. The people who played the character in my dream determined the name. Then other names came from associations - like the hawk's brother is named jess. That popped out without thought, but it gives me ideas of his being bound to his brother.

There seems to be a lot of discussion in the children's book world of giving characters more contemporary names. I guess because kids these days have unusual names. But I don't think it will last as the backlash against weird names should be coming up on the horizon.

I sometimes go to baby name generators to try and find a name.

fairyhedgehog said...

Hi Aerin!

I hadn't thought about how much easier secondary characters are to name but you're right, they are.

My first son's name was chosen only just before he was born but my second son was easier. We kept coming back to the same name and saying, "That's a nice name." So it didn't seem nearly as hard.

fairyhedgehog said...

I sometimes use the baby name generators too, Sarah. Sometimes it is just a question of "musn't be another name starting with J" but sometimes it feels much more tricky than that.

For science fiction I like to think that we might go back to some of the old favourites, but names like Ged and Mirl sound more futuristic.

It's complicated by the fact that what's normal in the UK is unusual in the States and vice versa.

Sylvia said...

I often try to set up a search that will give me "appropriate" names. Sites like are useful because it gives me someplace to start.

I'll often give a character a place-holder name and then change it later but I don't think I've ever changed a name more than once.

Hmmm, except for a secondary character in the novel that I'm about to change yet again. Oops!

fairyhedgehog said...

Thanks for the link, sylvia. That's a useful site to know about.

I have far too many placeholder names. It worries me that when I do Find and Replace I might miss one and end up with Emma suddenly called Ann or Natalie!

JaneyV said...

The meaning of names often is a deciding factor for me. It has to match the character's personality or at least reflect some physical characteristic. Trawling through the baby name sites can be very illuminating. You might hate a certain name, but the meaning is just right and you find that the same meaning, in a different language fits perfectly. I also think that it's easier to name a character after it's established and you know them better.

To tell the truth I find that it's far harder to get the right surname.

Whirlochre said...

I like choosing absurd names for my characters along the lines of old 60s comic book heroes or Dickens, but that's mainly because of the stuff I'm writing.

Books of babies names can be useful — and also this website (apols for not being able to link directly, but I haven't figured that one out yet)...

fairyhedgehog said...

I'm never sure how much the meaning of the name will matter to readers, Janey, maybe because it doesn't often matter to me. Mind you, that's from someone who named her cat Rufus because he is ginger so perhaps it does matter.

Thanks for the link, Whirl. I doubt that what you call your characters will fit into many other people's work because your voice is so unique. (Can you have degrees of uniqueness? If so, yours is first degree.)

JaneyV said...

I don't suppose it means a thing to the reader really, it's more about it fitting for me. Selfish - I know!!!

Stacy said...

Ugh - Naming is so hard for me! Occasionally I come up with something good, but most of the time I suck at it.

Bevie said...

First off, Thank you, Fairy, for sending people my way. I'm slowly catching up and have about twenty names to add to a few I was considering. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks.

How do I name characters?

Aerin's comment, " Names are almost a religion with me, and if I get the wrong one, I'm stalled", is so very true. I spent three months coming up with a boy/girl name for the unborn baby who eventually became my son. (Spouse didn't really care.)

I'm with JaneyV in that a name's meaning is very important to me. You're right, though, Fairy. Few Readers care what a name means. The meaning isn't important for the Reader. It's important to the Author.

But it's more than that. A name has to have feeling, too. Sometimes, especially when writing any kind of fantasy, existing names just don't cut it and you have to go with something that flows. That's how I came up with the name for my main character. The name flows, and I was able to provide a meaning based on phonetics: Warrior of Thunderstorms.

Sometimes I just sit and think about a character. Who are they, and what are they like? Then I use my emotions and call them something.

This probably wasn't helpful. Naming characters is more of an art form than a science.

Thanks again for sending help my way. And thank you to those of you who contributed.

writtenwyrdd said...

I seem to be pretty good at naming them, myself. I figure out a mood or type I want the character to be, and along with nationality and gender I can come up with a word to morph or a name that sounds good.

The names are important as a sort of icon for the character's personality. Changing the name really frustrates me, because my characters are real to me, and a new name is just strange to me.

Doesn't that sound crazy?

SillyBoy said...

My biggest problem with naming characters, is finding names that don't coincide with anyone I actually know. Otherwise, it becomes hard to let the character be him/herself without either becoming their namesake or deliberately not being their namesake.
Beyond that, I have no useful advice whatsoever, sorry. I just know when I've got it right.

fairyhedgehog said...

Hi SillyBoy, nice to see you in here!

I never thought about the problem with characters having the names of someone I know. I'd guess that might be easier with science-fiction and fantasy.

At least you know when you've got it right. I sometimes wonder if I will ever settle on a name for certain characters.

Robin B. said...

I sometimes tell myself the story while driving in the car or when faling asleep, or waking up. The right names seem to float in and give themselves to you when you're not so focused on finding them - that's been my experience. Hope this helps!

fairyhedgehog said...

That's a neat idea, Robin. I think I'll try that.

Robin B. said...

Hope it works for you as it does for me, FH!!!

McKoala said...

Sometimes names come instantly, other times a character can go through a whole draft called 'X'.

fairyhedgehog said...

'X' is good. Or maybe 'Z'. I suppose it depends what kind of fiction you're writing, McK.

I'm glad I'm not the only one to find that names don't always come easily.

Bevie said...

Regarding "placeholders", I generally use a combination of letter/s and numbers as they are not likely to show up anywhere else in the text.

E.g. Female41, Male48

Anonymous said...

It depends. Some names pop into my head and that's that. Others I struggle with and change their names again and again. I've got baby name books, and I check websites, movie credits, magazine mastheads, and favorite novels. Whatever works.

fairyhedgehog said...

Hi Mapelba! I'm glad I'm not the only one who sometimes has to change the name more than once.

Bevie: Good idea about the placeholders. I'm currently using TK as a marker wherever I need to do more research. I wish I knew where I'd got that one from.

Kevin Musgrove said...

I find that place names and street names are often surprisingly fertile grounds for character names. They do tend to be a bit muscular, though, rather in the tradition of John Buchan or Sapper: Kirby Lonsdale, Richard Askham and Clayton le Moors.

laughingwolf said...

hmm my own way is to look at the character to see what kind of name could fit... or, they tell me :O lol

Linda McGeary said...

Wow! What great comments. Obviously something every writer goes through.

All very interesting.

I keep a small name book near by, and anytime I hear an unusual, neat name I write in in my book.

But the main source of names that go in the book are from my dreams. I dream names. Don't ask me why, they just come and I wake up and there they are.

Who are these people who populate my night?

For instance: I met a young girl (in my dream) named Cammie Aggie Oggo. (I often write fantasy) I ask her where she got her beautiful name? "Oh, where I come from, you have a given name, and then your mothers name and then your fathers name. My younger brother is Lodar."

Some other dream names are: Glissa Tith, Yill VonDoezan, Liska, Jolo. On and on.

I don't know if all of these names from the book will find their way into stories, but some of them have. Aaru, Zala Zin Izzo, Annothira.

I dream place names too, Danggettie. K'Drayon.

Maybe they are all names I read somewhere and they just stuck in my unconscious and come up in dreams.

Many are characters full grown already.

Names and ideas are not my weak spot. It is making the time to write and disciplining myself to do it.

Jessi said...

I love naming characters, but it doesn't always come easy to me. I hate that feeling of 'knowing' that a name isn't right, but not being able to find the right one.

fairyhedgehog said...

That's a good tip, Kevin. I'll look out for some of those place names. Although some of them won't work, like Pratt's Bottom for example. Some place names are weirder than anything I could make up.

Then I'll do what you suggest, Linda, and jot them down in a note book. I'm very bad at remembering to do that and then not losing the notebook once I've written in it. I wish I could dream up some names while I'm asleep.

Jessi, I know exactly what you mean. I know when a name's wrong but if only it was always easy to fix it.

Unknown said...

Names are given by parents. They say something of the values of the people that raised the character. The name will have influenced the characters life ever since. The qualities that you have given your character should align with the name. Jesus born and raised in Mexico by christians will be treated and behave differently from Jesus born and raised in Jordan, India, China by non-christians.

fairyhedgehog said...

That's a good point, Wendy.

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