Divas On Writing: It’s All About The Name
I can’t say that the one hardest thing about being a writer is naming your characters, but it can be a really, really frustrating part. And I mean really hair-pullingly frustrating. What impact will a character’s name have on their development? What’s the meaning behind the name? Does it roll off the tongue? Does it sound pretentious or worst yet, stupid? I’m like the many authors who find the name thing tiresome, but there are many people who can pick a name out of the air, never giving it a second thought. So which one of these authors would you describe yourself as? If you find yourself struggling with character names, here are some guidelines to consider in order to help you out.
1. Where is it set?
What time period? What is the basic gist of your plot? All of these questions are important. You don’t want to name your male lead Bruce if your book is a western set in the mid 1800s. Typical names used in westerns are Biblical names. John, Paul, Peter, etc. Bruce wasn’t typically a name you would hear in a western. Names back then were more simple. Unless you came up with an elaborate subplot with character named Bruce who was born in Scotland and immigrated to America, his name would stick out like a sore thumb in the Wild West. Although it was introduced in the 19th century to North America, it wouldn’t have been highly popular as a character on the lone prairie. Make sure you check your origins before naming your characters. Which leads into the next point.
2. Check your origins.
This is very important when you’re writing anything historically based. Books set in modern time frames tend to have more leeway with name origins. Now these days, people are named after all kinds of things that don’t really relate to a certain region or place they live. But it is wise to know the history behind a name. When was it introduced? Where? How popular is it? There may be different variations of the name in other countries. Take my name, for example. Lauren has about fifty variations in different countries and languages. Along with feminine and masculine forms, it can mean something completely different as well.
3. What does it mean?
Every name has some sort of meaning. Look it up. Taking my name again, Lauren means “laurel-crowned” or “flower crown.” The meaning of the name you pick can play into your character development. For example, Ryan means “little king”. Ryan would be a good name to fit a character that is authoritative or a natural leader.
4. Classic or hip?
Let’s face it, not many people are naming their characters Dick, Jane, and Sally anymore. And who wants to read a romance or suspense with a character named Dick unless the character is truly living up to his name. Then, hey, that’s hilarious. I like to think that oftentimes in books, authors tend to call upon names that sound more creative or hip. I call them hipster names, and in the literary world authors can have full creative license on those names. My young daughter is starting school for the first time tomorrow, and we went for orientation the other day. As I looked over the student names listed in her class, there were names I like to refer to as popular and safe names. Anna, Emma, Adam, Sam, Gavin, Rachel, and so forth. Hipster names tend to break the norm and draw the eye. Raven, Asher, Roman, Rawdy, Olive, Lila, etc. The differentiation between classic and hipster will certainly vary from author to author.
Nicknames are everywhere. Whether it’s a variation of a given name or a play on the character, nicknames tell a lot about the personality or story you’re writing. Going back to westerns, let’s say you have a character name William, but everyone calls him Tex because he was born in Fort Worth. Or it’s an ironic nickname because he always wears a ten-gallon hat. A nickname can help show your character better to the reader. There is a lot that could be said for a character with a nickname like Tex.
6. How does it sound?
This is probably the most important thing to consider when picking a name. It has to sound good to you. Say it out loud. Read your chapter introducing your character name out loud as well. Hear it in the story to really judge the sound of the name. Then have someone else read it aloud. Does it flow? If you’re writing romance, is it sexy? If your book is a dark thriller, does the name sound menacing?
7. Do all your characters jibe?
So you have your whole character list done—how do they all look paired together? Do they appeal to the eye? Do you have all your spellings correct? It’s one thing to have the name Sean but then spell it Shawn every other page. Make sure you’re consistent.
8. When all else fails, check a name generator.
There are plenty of name generators out there, just search the Internet. I like this one HERE. It asks you not just the gender, but nationality and time frame the character is in. Then when it generates the name, there is a full origin given to you based on your result. Pretty cool!
There are a lot of factors to think about regarding character names. Many more than I have listed here—this is a basic starting point. I hope that if you’re having any trouble, some of these points can help you out.