By Kelley Lindberg
Choosing a name for your character is every bit as important – and sometimes as difficult – as choosing a name for your child.
There are plenty of criteria for choosing the right name. You want the name to be memorable, for one. It should also be easy to say (or read). Giving your alien sidekick the name Skzgx14sky may look cool, but it’s awfully hard to pronounce, even in your head. And it’s a pain to type – keep that in mind if you’re going to be referring to this character a lot in your novel.
Some other things to keep in mind when choosing a name include whether it’s time-period appropriate (“Starshine” probably wasn’t a common name in the Civil War), and characteristic of your character’s ethnic or geographic background. There are websites that list common names for various languages or cultures if you need ideas for authentic names. If the name is for an alien or fantasy character, would it be pronounceable with the alien’s facial (or other sound-producing) features?
Does your character’s name start with the same letter as another major character’s name in the story? I hate reading stories where there’s a John, a James, a Joan, and a Jean – I’m constantly confusing the characters. Avoid using the same first letter more than once, even if you think the names are pretty different from each other. In other words, even though Sarah and Samantha have a different number of syllables, our brains are still going to lump them together because of the initial “S” sound (and especially because they both end in “a”). Change one to Roberta or Kristin, pretty please! Just that single change goes a long way towards eliminating confusion.
Are there meanings or connotations you want the character’s name to represent – or avoid? Pick up a “Baby Names” book (or search baby name websites) to see the meanings of thousands of names. Some might surprise you. (For example, “Kelley” means “brave warrior.” That right there is what you might call irony. I’d be the first casualty in any battle scene, easy.)
Think about the sound of the name – harder vowels and consonants may sound stronger, more abrupt, harsher. A powerful bad guy is going to sound tougher with the name Kyle Trent than with the name Leonard Memmon. Softer, more melodious names will match softer, more melodious characters. On the other hand, giving a bad guy a softer name might be just the extra little red herring you were looking for.
A recent study at the University of Chicago (and described in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Parents’ Baby Name Choices Linked to Political Leanings”), suggests that conservatives prefer baby names that start with those stronger, hard consonants like K, T, B, and D, and well-educated conservatives go with traditional names like Mary or Elizabeth. On the other hand, liberals choose names that start with softer sounds like L and often end in A sounds (like Sophia and Laura), and well-educated liberals go with more unusual, but established names. Less-educated parents often choose alternate spellings or make up entirely new names. So you might even want to take your character’s political leanings and educational background into account when you give him or her a name.
A well-chosen name can telegraph a lot of information about your character. The trick is making sure it’s the information you intended. But all of that information telegraphing is moot if you end up with a name you’re not fond of. The name must fit your character and feel completely natural to you. Don’t hesitate to try out several names until you find the one you love. The Search and Replace feature in word processing software is our friend.
Danelle Witte says
Choosing names is one of my favorite parts of writing! Another idea for choosing a character's name: parents often choose historically significant names for their children. Would your character's parents have named their child after a king/queen or a military, political or perhaps a religious figure? For instance, former African American slaves took the surname Freeman or Lincoln to celebrate their newly acquired freedom in the post-Civil War years. Some people have a first or middle name that indicates where they were born. My uncle's name was Orville Santa Fe Lawson–he was born on the Santa Fe train! Happy writing!