What’s in a Character’s Name? Part 1 focused on the etymology and origins of names. In Part 2, let’s consider 5 things to think about when naming characters for your story…
I am currently reading Book 5 of the Game of Thrones series, but will admit I had to start Book 1 at least five times. Mainly, because of the plethora of names presented in the first fifty pages, and how many of them were so similar. I am happy to say I’ve got it all worked out now. Mostly.
Be aware of the way names look and sound on the page. If the names look very similar, or have overwhelming assonance, the reader may be momentarily distracted by trying to figure out who is speaking. The same goes for main characters whose names all start with the same letter. It is amazing how names alone can distract from the momentum of the story.
Some examples of combinations to avoid:
Mace and Macy. Dayton and Peyton.
These name pairings are much too similar. No one will be able to tell your characters apart. Of course there are exceptions to every rule! The twins in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin are called, Da-Fu and A-Fu, fondly Da-A-Fu. They even tease that they are so similar. Incidentally, Da-A-Fu means “great good fortune” and is represented by a brightly painted clay figurine in Chinese culture. These characters appear at a major turning point for the protagonist, Minli. However, without significant meaning, this type of similarity could be distracting.
Harry, Harold, Homer, and Henrietta. Jack, Jayda, and Jimmy.
Names that all start with the same letter may seem like a good idea, but keeping track of these characters throughout the story could be a challenge for the reader.
That Has a Nice Ring to It
Choose a name that sounds good. Names can be memorable. They may pop up in polite conversation and knock us to our knees. Cruella de Vil. Did that name not just send a chill down your spine? It did mine.
Sherlock Holmes. This name has such a good ring to it. The strength of the “ck” in the first name, followed by the mellowness of the last. Our favorite detective is both strong and vulnerable.
Huckleberry Finn has a charm and playfulness to it, reminiscent of Mark Twain’s original narrative, written throughout in informal English, with local regionalisms.
Charlie Bucket. Now there’s a down to earth fellow. No wonder Willy Wonka (also a fabulous name) entrusts the chocolate factory to his care.
Ramona Quimby. The perfect name to yell at the top of your lungs. Very apropos considering all of the trouble she gets into.
Let’s not forget name pairs as well.
There is no coincidence that when my students ask for a Magic Treehouse book from the library, invariably, they ask for “Jack and Annie”.
A Whole New World
Listen to the world of your story. What would the people in that world name their children? Consider if your characters are elves, vampires, mermaids, well, you get the idea.
There are many different kinds of name generators online. Name Generator Fun is a great site to visit if you would like to generate unique world specific names. There are many types of websites like this. I like this one, because whatever algorithm they use seems to work in a believable way. First, it will ask you to choose some starting criteria:
Choose a random name
Choose a name generated from your own name
Choose from a list of names based around a theme.
Using the Elf Name Generator, I found that, my randomly generated elf name was Maegorodeth. Meaning: Sharp Mountain (maeg+orod) Female (eth)(maegorod+eth).
The elf name generated from my real name was Lennel. Meaning: Journey (lend) Female (el) (lend+el).
Then I chose from a list of themes, including, journeys and places, seasons and sky. What came back was a long list of names, any of which could be used in a story about elves.
Name Generator Fun.com has many other choices too! You can find your vampire name, superhero name, time lord name, your unicorn name, mermaid name and the list goes on.
Titles are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title.
Consider if your character has a nickname. I just finished listening to Eoin Colfer’s Half Moon Investigations. I do quite a bit of driving and listen to a lot of audiobooks. This book provided great examples of how nicknames can be used effectively.
The main character’s name is Fletcher Moon. He is a boy detective, clever, resourceful and short in stature. His classmates give him the nickname Half-Moon because of his size. Fletcher does not appreciate the nickname. He teams up with a kid named Red, with flaming red hair. Red isn’t his real name, and we don’t actually find out what his real name is in the story. In the epilogue, Red and Fletcher decide to form a detective group. Red suggests “Moon Investigations” while Fletcher replies saying “You’re half right”. This implies that Fletcher has accepted his nickname, realizing that its very meaning has been transformed over the harrowing events in the novel. Not only has he gained an unlikely friend, but a partner as well.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Leonardo da Vinci was right. Keep it simple. Have you ever read a story where the characters’ name had more symbols than letters? I like to read a lot of adult science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes the names are so ludicrously complicated that I have to wonder if it was worth all of the trouble. Ridiculously complicated names must certainly be an audiobook narrator’s worst nightmare.
Ever hear the urban legend of the girl named La-a? La-a is pronounced Ladasha. The dash isn’t silent.
M’Kenzi for Mackenzie, J’Shawn for Jashawn, K*Den for Kaden
When naming characters for stories, there are quite a few ways to choose the right one. Ultimately, the right name for your character may just fall out of the sky. The best rule of thumb? If it feels right, then it is right.
Related Post: What’s in a Character’s Name? Part 1
Check out Alison’s chapter book series, The Smith Family Secret. The Smith Family Secret: Christmas Wishes will be available on Amazon.com November 2014.
Can’t wait to have at that name generator — thanks for the link!
I’m so excited about using the name generator. Thanks for that tip and your thoughtful post.
The name generator is super fun. My steampunk name is Commodore Millie Burkhill-Birdwhistle. Ha!
I love this post, Alison. Finding the right character name is always fun for me and I agree with you that when it feels right, it is right!
Reblogged this on roehilldotnet.
Thanks for the reblog!
Hi Alison, I love this series! RE: Names that are way too close: in an early draft of my current WIP (no online reveals, please!) I had both a Mags and a Max. Max was renamed Leo pretty quickly, based on an early critique. One character is known only by his initials; to me, his initials mean BIg Dog; the reader doesn’t know that, but it’s helpful to me in developing his character. And the main character’s name is all about double meanings.
Love it. It’s amazing how important names can be in the actually telling of a story. Love the name Big Dog. 8>)