Hello! Today, I wanted to talk about character names.
Literally a couple of weeks ago In my youth, I spent a lot of time of name websites, furiously looking up origins and meanings. A character’s name felt very important, and I wanted to cram as many metaphors and nudges into a couple of syllables as I could. (Once, I named a character who could fly Aderyn Byrd. That translates to Bird Bird. Subtlety was not my strength.)
In fact, all my names felt inauthentic and obviously constructed. Why? Had babynames.com led me astray?!
The good news is, I’m not here to tell you not to use name website. But I am here to tell you what I’d forgotten: you’re not actually the one naming your character.
How To Name Your Character
All right. You might be thinking, what do you mean? Of course I’m the one naming my character! I am taking the time out of my day to read this blog post! (And I thank you for that.) But presumably, you want your reader to think that your characters exist as their own beings, in their own world.
Which means the single most important thing to consider when you’re naming a character is: who gave your character this name?
Considering the world your character is coming from will automatically lead to more authentic, realistic names. Let’s think about some of the likely naming culprits:
Your Character’s Parents – Often, our parents name us. Try to imagine that you are your character’s parents. What’s most important to you? Do you want to name your child something trendy or traditional? After a relative, or yourself? Do you plan on calling your child by a nickname? Are there any cultural or religious traditions at play? Your character will end up with a name that reflects the world they grew up in, and you might just learn more about their setting as a result.
Another Relative or Family Friend – Perhaps your character was actually named by an older sibling, or an elderly relative. These names could reflect the givers’ names. (My sister is four years younger than me, and it’s a good thing my parents didn’t let me name her. I was obsessed with Dora at the time and I probably would’ve tried to name her Boots.)
Your Character – Here’s where things get interesting! Sometimes your character might name themselves. This could be because their original name didn’t fit them – maybe they wanted something that better matched their gender identity, or perhaps they changed religions and took a new name. Did they pick a name in a different language? Naming yourself could also be a a form of rebellion, an act of declaring yourself to the world. (See Lady Bird.)
If you think about who gave your character their name, you can understand their world. Of course, your character’s name can also change throughout the novel. Think about Beatrice in Divergent, who decides to go by the tougher nickname “Tris” after joining an adventure faction. Will your character try to modify their name? How do they adapt – or not – to fit themselves in their world?
Other naming tips:
Syllables can sometimes suggest personality or class. Catalina Maria Cedarwood is very different vibe than Tim Smith.
Think about what your character’s loved one might call them, or if a nickname ever replaces their given name. You can suggest that a character acts differently when they’re called by a nickname – maybe “Isabella” feels constrained in her own home, but at her school, she feels freer when her friends call her “Izzy.” Or maybe a character is stuck with a nickname they don’t want, such as Willowdean in the book Dumplin’.
Careful of using the same first letter!
If there’s a Maria, a Mara, and a Mary in your story, readers are going to have a tough time keeping track of who’s who.
Finally – how will the character’s name interact with others?
Sometimes you can use names to emphasize the similarities or differences between characters. Say you write a pair of best friends, and one is named Fredrick Higgelsworth the Fourth and the other is named Lee. We might make some assumptions about where these people come from and how their relationship will work.