Coming up with suitable, fitting, and believable names for your characters can be time-consuming and daunting. Many new writers get caught up in the complexities of what names suit the looks and beliefs and actions of their characters which—unless you’re thinking up a name for a character which they’ve chosen themselves or that has been given to them based on their appearance, knowledge or skill—is pointless and will take away from the substance of your story.
First of all, during the first draft of a story don’t worry about whether or not a character’s name works, just call them whatever pops into your head—as long as it’s memorable for you. It’s essential that the main purpose of your first draft is to get the scaffolding of your story into place before dwelling on smaller details, which might even change over the course of the first draft. Then, as you write your second draft, once characters have been cut and added, and their background better understood by you (even if you never plan to share these backgrounds with your readers), then you can start to consider what names your characters should be given.
At my local writers’ group a few years back, while reading a chapter of another writer’s novel, I remember being pleasantly surprised at the name of a fairly huge and tough henchman-type character in a modern-day England setting. The character wasn’t called a macho-type name, or a typical British gangster name, or a name that could subconsciously convey the idea of a very large, strong man. Instead, the writer had chosen to give this character an ordinary, if not bland, man’s name—a choice which created some slight humour, but also pointed out one very important fact to consider when choosing character names: real people are given names when they are just babies, or even sometimes before they’re born. Real names are influenced, not by the looks or habits or actions of an individual, but by the influences on their parents/carers around the time of their birth.
There may of course be exceptions to this, such as characters that get to choose their own names at a certain important age or stage in their lives, or characters that have legally changed their name to something they prefer, or that are solely known by a nickname or a trade name. Perhaps you’re writing a fantasy where the character was raised by another species, and therefore the name they have does not suit their own kind, or maybe you’re writing historical fiction where you can actually research common names of that era, and what influences on names occurred.
However, let’s presume you’re writing a fictional human character that would have been named by their parents/carers and you need to somehow come up with a logical, believable, and suitable name. Your starting point is to think about the character’s parents and the character’s place of birth. Consider whether or not the parents were religious at the time, and if a religious text or figure could have played a part in their choice of name. Could their place of birth have been an area that travellers regularly passed through, creating the possibility for exposure of unusual and exotic names? Could there be a cultural influence that brought a particular name to the attention of the parents/carers, or perhaps your character was named after a much-loved family member or respected member of the community?
These days, films and TV programmes play a huge role in influencing the choice of names given to babies in the developed world. For example, the hit US comedy Friends promoted the slightly-unusual-but-not-too-unusual, boys’ name of Chandler to the viewers of the popular sitcom. The following few years saw a huge increase in the amount of baby boys registered as being named Chandler in both America and the UK.
When American actress Scarlett Johansson made one of her earliest film appearances in 2002 as a secondary character in Eight Legged Freaks, the name Scarlett began to be noticed by parents choosing a name for their baby girls. Ever since that film, Scarlett Johansson’s career has hit a strong incline, and so too has the influence of her name. A year before Eight Legged Freaks was released, the name Scarlett was ranked the 939th most chosen name given to a baby girl in America. By 2010, it was the 115th most popular name, and in this current year of 2018, with Scarlett announced as among the highest paid actresses in the world, the name is the 17th most popular name for girls in the USA and the 28th most popular in the UK.
Characters in popular fiction don’t have to be the heroes of a story, or even on the side of the protagonists, for their name to become noticed by parents-to-be. In 1983 Stephen King released the horror novel Pet Semetery, which featured a two-year-old boy called Gage who tragically died when run down by a truck and, brought back to life by his grieving father, returns from the dead not quite the same boy that he used to be. In 1989 the novel was adapted into a film, and the child character of Gage, although once resurrected became a monstrous killer, was noticed by new parents searching for a baby boy’s name. In America in 1990, a year after the film version of the novel was release, Gage became the 360th most popular name chosen for boys. That may not seem very high, but when you consider that in 1982, a year before Stephen King released the novel, the name was ranked the 2,652 most popular, you can clearly see the influence the antagonist’s name had on readers and viewers of Pet Semetery.
Names follow trends, and what was once old always manages to become new again. British parents are now striving away from the fashionable and very popular names ending in an ‘a’, such as Olivia, Amelia, Isabella, Mia, Sophia, Isla, Miya, and Ava, and are looking instead back at the names of women three or four generations ago, with ‘granny’ names such as Mabel, Posie, and Ethel slowly edging their way towards the top 100. Even the somewhat old-fashioned biblical name Martha is currently the 87th most popular name given to baby girls in the UK—though I’m in no doubt that some of the name’s influence on new parents has come from its use in the popular TV drama The Handmaids Tale.
Another thing to consider when naming a character is whether they have siblings, and what the names of those siblings are going to be. In real life, most parents who choose a Hebrew or biblical name for their first child, such as Andrew or Mary, are unlikely to name their second child a modern name or a name from another culture, unless they undergo a somewhat radical change in their life, or one of the parents is different than of the first child and therefore brings different influences.
You could also consider how other characters might say this character’s name out loud, and of how suitable the name would therefore be for the mood and setting of the scene in which this takes place. For instance, a love interest of a character will likely say the name much more carefully, enjoying the sound of each and every syllable, whereas the enemy of a character might practically spit the name out. If you’ve come up with a shortlist of possible names, say them out loud in the manner that another character would, and see what does and doesn’t work.
Finally, I’ll throw in the age-old character-naming rule of avoiding multiple names that are very similar. Try to make all of your characters’ names start with different letters, or if two characters do end up with names starting with the same letter, try to make those names very easily distinguishable, perhaps by making one contain only one syllable, and the other three or four. This will allow your readers to glide through your story in a more fluid motion, instead of having to stop and question which character is which.
Creating suitable, strong and believable character names that are distinct from each other will ensure that readers do not get confused or irritated, and therefore are more likely to enjoy your story from start to finish.
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© 2018 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.