Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What’s in a Name?

By Darvell Hunt

A major part of writing good fiction is naming the fake people who live inside your head. Picking names for characters can be a daunting task, but is a necessary step in creating good stories. There are probably about as many ways to pick character names as there are writers, but I'd like to mention a few things that I've found useful.

First of all, I don’t take the topic of names too seriously. When I do, I generally end up fretting over my name choices so much that I never actually get onto the writing. On the other hand, I’ve found it difficult to write about characters in my head as if they were real if I don’t know their names. For my writing, I try to get somewhere in the middle between these two extremes.

There are a few methods I use to pick names. Sometimes I like to choose names with meaning that match what I'm trying to say. That can get a little heavy if overused, though. I also like just grabbing a name that doesn’t really mean anything, but somehow seems to match my character. These two examples represent opposite methods of choosing names and there are plenty of other ways to choose names between these two extremes. Which method I use often depends on the genre and the particular story, but the process of choosing names can vary greatly in practical use.

In addition to these methods, there are different types of names to choose from. You can choose common names, because many parents aren’t very creative when naming their kids in real life. (LOL, just kidding.) Or you can choose unusual names that make your characters memorable, or even bizarre. Your names can highlight certain characteristics of your story’s players, or even emphasize elements of the story itself. Generally, I pick about 50% of each type for my stories. A good mixture seems best.

When thinking about possible names, it's helpful to think about people you know or people you meet. You should take notice of trends in names, and be aware that these trends change over time, so you may need to choose names based on the time period of your story, or perhaps the birth date of your character. For your story to “ring true,” your names should mimic real life (or the unreal world in which your story is set). If you don’t want to “date stamp” your story, make sure you don’t choose a name from a short span of time.

A whole how-to writing book could be (and has been) written on naming characters, and I really only have time to hit the basics. Not everyone names their characters in the same way, which is okay, because not all parents name their kids using the same “rules “ (or else everybody would have the same names in real life—and that would be boring!).

I think one of the most important things to remember when naming characters is randomness. Sometimes the best name is the one pulled from a hat. It’s often best to just keep your names simple, despite the common writer’s urge to make every name have significant something.

There are a number of tools that I've used for naming characters. If you’re having trouble with names, try one or more of the following resources. If these don’t help, there are plenty others available on the Internet—let Google be your friend. You can search for things like “random name generator” or you can use other similar keywords. There are also a number of websites that give meaning for names, which can be fun for a writer.

Here are some of my favorite name web sites:




Your local phone book can also be useful—but don’t use first and last names exactly as you see them! You’re bound to pick the name of a real person eventually, especially if you use common names (like Harry Potter!), but don’t do it on purpose!

I also tend to follow a few rules in matching first names to last names, like, for example, a common first name goes well with an uncommon last name, and vice versa. Take Darvell Hunt, for example. I’ll be the first to admit that the first name is a bit “out there” (thanks mom and dad!), but I think it goes well with my semi-common one-syllable last name. Strange first AND last names can get confusing, and unless you have a reason for doing it, they should probably be avoided.

Make up your own rules for naming your characters, but don’t forget to break them occasionally as you see fit. Names can be a fun part of your story if you'll allow it to be, but don’t get lost in creating your characters and forget to write their stories.

If you’ve found other online resources or suggestions that have helped you in naming the fake people in your imaginary worlds, please feel free to post a reply for everyone’s benefit


Rebecca said...

Great article! Thanks for the links, they'll be helpful.

When I was having a difficult time picking a name for my hero, I turned to my Facebook status box for help. :D

Rebecca said...

Oooh, I couldn't pass this up. The word verification for this comment is "tylood". Hmmm...Tylood. Could be a good name for a fantasy character!

So pay attention to word verifications, folks!

Darvell Hunt said...

Tylood, LOL. Maybe they used the random word generator that I linked above. ;) Is that really a word?