#WriteTip: Naming Characters
This is a rehashing of a question I answered on my Wiselike FAQ. I was asked how I come up with the names of my characters, and I think it’s an important question. After all, you want your story to be memorable, and you want the name of your character to carry with it all of the personality of the person to which it is attached.
I’ve always loved naming characters. And while I’d love to tell you that it’s as simple as finding sounds that you like (sometimes it is), the subject is a lot more complicated than it seems at first blush.
Firstly, there are a few things to consider. Most importantly, the work you need the name FOR. So for example, if you’re writing a story set in Victorian England, you’re going to need proper English names, such as William and Elizabeth.
(I write Fantasy most of the time, so all I need to do is pick a name I like.)
Onto the nitty gritty!
- Does your story have different cultures?
A good thing to remember! Different cultures might have different nomenclature styling. To use the Victorian England example above, consider what would happen if you dropped a person from another culture into that story. Perhaps a Spaniard? A Spaniard is unlikely to have the same kind of name.
The same thing goes if you’re writing a fantasy but your characters are from different parts of the map.
If you’re going to set rules to how you name a character, make sure you follow your own rules. Gaelic names often have a “Y” that sounds like an “I” such as in the name Eowyn (AY-oh-win). Don’t pronounce them differently out of the same culture by changing the rules for no reason, like pronouncing this one AY-oh-wine.
- Associations with Sound
When I’m making up a name, I like the sounds to create an association with the character. I might choose a name with softer syllables if the character I’m naming is proper and feminine. I might choose one that sounds a bit more harsh if I’m selecting a warrior name. Like in my book Achillea, we have Myen (MEE-ehn) and Heike (HI-keh). Myen is a softer word to say. It’s no coincidence; she’s a silk-wearing lady who doesn’t get her hands dirty. Heike, on the other hand, is stabby-stabby and abrasive.
Maybe the contrast might actually suit your needs, though. For example, if your character is like my Heike (that is to say, volatile, violent, and with a penchant for snark), it might be amusing to give her a girly name. I don’t recommend it, though. She’s scary when she’s angry.
- Name Generators
There are a lot of good name generators out there. I prefer Behind the Name . It allows you to select different dialects to pull names FROM, which is useful if you’re copying a pattern (maybe one of your cultures reminds you of ze Germans). But if you select these boxes and click ‘Generate!’ it randomly pops out a name.
I typically don’t outright COPY a name. Usually I find one that sounds similar to how I wanted the name to sound in the first place, and then tweak it however it strikes me at the time.
I used the name generator for Heike, actually. Heike is of German/Dutch origin and is the feminine form of Henry, or something like that.
- Underusing a Letter
This is going to sound silly, but I often start with a letter that I don’t feel like has gotten enough attention. “I want this one to start with an ‘N’,” for example. And then I play with syllables from there.
- Don’t piss off your readers
MOST readers dislike names that are hard to pronounce. It is also worth mentioning that at least some of your readers are going to mispronounce the name you intended. Maybe people call Heike “Haykee” or “Hake” or “Hike.” I can’t control this. So the harder you make your name, the more you’re going to experience that. Don’t be offended–or add a glossary (though a lot of people won’t read that, either).
Side note: I love glossaries. It’s important to me to experience a tale the way an author intended, right down to how the character’s name is supposed to sound.
- Don’t make it too hard on yourself.
As the writer, you’re going to have to type out the name you choose more times than you’ll want to count. If you make a character’s name 25 characters long, you’re going to hate your character before too long.
- Say them out loud.
Sometimes a name looks better on paper than it sounds leaving your lips. I’ve run into this a few times. I love saying Heike and Lyda and Myen. I don’t love saying Eadric. In fact, I stopped liking saying Eadric so much that I gave him a nickname: Eddy. And he, consequently, hates his nickname and will tell you so, as a reflection of me thinking it’s a cheesy nickname as well. But it’s much easier for me to refer to him affectionately as Eddy even if his formal name is Eadric.
NOTE: It’s also REALLY funny to write interactions where his name becomes a topic of conversation. Heike loves to piss him off, and that’s always amusing.
Since we’re on that topic, consider using a nickname.
DON’T overuse nicknames. Nicknames are special things, so not EVERYONE is going to have a nickname. It should be noted, however, that some rare characters prefer to give everyone a nickname against his or her will. See above: Eddy.
Nicknames are usually shortened versions of the original name, however, that’s not always the case. Maggie is often a nickname for Margaret, for example. My characters sometimes have WTF nicknames. Tahrindale becomes Torin, for example.
The end goal of writing a book is that you hope it becomes a bestseller. The most important piece of the puzzle is being memorable. When I choose a name, I’m trying to brand myself. I think to myself that someday everyone is going to be talking about this. When you hear this name, I want you to ONLY think of the character that I created, and NO ONE ELSE.-
Most everyone knows Sherlock, Katniss, Black Widow, Matilda, and Don Juan are. Do you know exactly who I am talking about when I say “Sarah”? Nope. You want to be famous. You need to be the one that sticks out.
If you’re like me at all you have 500+ Facebook friends, many of which are from other countries. What are their names? Also look at LAST names. There aren’t rules to naming a character (unless they’re self-imposed). Then, follow the other 10 things above that I listed until you butcher it into something you can use.
Characters I’ve named and where their names came from:
- Heike: German diminutive feminine version of Henry
- Myen: Completely made it up.
- Bergeron (Berge): The last name of a person who played Knighthood on FB
- Zanje: A butchered form of Sanja, another person who played Knighthood.
- Dashe: A butchered form of the character his personality was based upon
- Wex: A character based on my roommate, who works as a courier at our job. The vehicles are fueled with “Wex” cards from Enterprise.
- Ashes: A dig at my husband who is currently upset at a coworker for having won a rare drop on World of Warcraft that he doesn’t yet own called Ashes of Alar.
I think that mostly covers it. The Tl;dr version of this is that I play around with the letters, the sounds, and the syllables until I find one that I think fits the character in need of a name.
S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS.