A little while ago, I wrote a post about ways to beat writer’s block and a friend commented about how she had a problem coming up with names for her characters. I had a hard time condensing my reply because I felt like I could write a whole blog post on the topic. Well, I finally got around to putting my thoughts on paper, and here it is: “What I’ve Learned About Naming Characters”. Catchy, right? Maybe I should work on “What I’ve Learned About Titles”.
Not to freak anybody out right off the bat, but names are pretty important. Whether you’re trying to make a statement by hiding subtle clues in a character’s name or you just want to come up with something you can wrap your tongue around for the length of a novel, some work must go into the choice. And that work is one of the first things you have to do before you can even get the first draft down. I’ve found it’s very hard to start a novel not knowing the protagonist’s name and at least the basics of their personality. For me, the process usually falls into one of three difficulty levels: Easy, Medium, or Cursing at the page. Unfortunately, this isn’t a video game where you can just turn the difficulty down whenever the bad guy is kicking your butt. You’ve just got to deal with what your creativity hands you. Though there are some tools and tricks which can give you a leg up.
Every now and then, a character walks into my head fully formed, wearing a name tag. “Hello, my name is Isol.” For some reason she was holding hands with Anella, so I got two out of that deal. But that’s usually only once or twice per book, so for everyone else I keep a list of names I’ve come across (or thought up) that I like and think “Hey I might want to use that one day”. “One day” always comes sooner than I think it will. So when a character shows up in a scene without a convenient tag, my first move is to my list. Are there any that just seem to fit? I know it’s arbitrary, but sometimes it’s just a gut feeling. You probably already have an idea who this person is going to be, so find a name that invokes a feeling that matches. In By Wingéd Chair I wanted the leader of their group to be a well-respected warrior, and to me, the name Lans felt big and strong and protective. To contrast him, I wanted Merry’s love interest to be a bit more spindly and bookish and the name Whyn made me think clever rather than brawny; exactly what I was going for.
Sometimes you want something a bit more specific. You want names that mean something or sound like they’re from a certain place. I like behindthename.com because you can search their database by meaning or by country of origin. In Skin Deep I wanted the setting to have a kind of medieval France/Wales feel, so that’s where I got Anwen. Not only is it a pretty name but it’s Welsh for “very beautiful”. Fitting for the beauty in Beauty and the Beast. Same thing for Léon. I was looking for something both French and animalistic. Léon turns into a bear, not a lion, but I think the parallel still works.
When all else fails and the character is refusing to give you ID, start with a letter of the alphabet. Have too many K names already? Try a B. Then add another letter. What works? What doesn’t? Sound it out until you’ve got something useable. That’s how Merrin, Vinny, and Renny got their names in Catching Cinders. Michael J. Sullivan talked about naming some of his characters this way.
And remember, you’re not sitting there with a stone slab and a chisel. If you give someone a name and a few pages later you think of something better, you can always change it. Vira-we in By Wingéd Chair has had three different names so far, and Merry started out as Lori. Although, be careful, because if you slap a temporary tag on someone and leave it too long it might end up sticking like last night’s mac and cheese. For five chapters, I didn’t have a name for Cinderella’s prince (he was particularly picky), and finally, I just threw one at him. It was only supposed to be temporary, but by the end of the book, I couldn’t even imagine him with any other name. Vóila, Prince Nickolas was born.
I feel like I should add one more thing since it’s my mom’s pet peeve, and she’s very generously passed it on to me. If you write fantasy and you’re into those teeth-cracking, tongue-twisting names (like me), please follow accepted spelling and pronunciation rules for the country of your choice. If you must make up very own language, fine, just be sure everything makes sense and is consistent. No one wants to recommend a book saying, “Yeah, that one guy with the A and all the i’s and x’s is really cool. Unpronounceable, but cool.”
Go have some fun with it. I think naming characters is one of the most rewarding bits of our art. Seeing a character come to life on the page with all their cool traits fitting together topped with a name like a really great hat. You can’t deny how cool that is.
I’ve got some cool things planned for the near future, so stay tuned next week for an exciting update.