Naming Your Characters
You have a well-rounded individual, ready to start their adventure. You’ve got that oh-so-important background. You know your MC (main character) like the back of your hand.
But what the hell do you call them?
What are the building blocks for deciding what to name your character?
Choosing a name for your character is as difficult as choosing a name for your newly born baby, if not even more difficult. It has to fit the era, history, generation, language, and culture of the world you're writing in, but it also has to be interesting and memorable.
John Smith is boring, while Grinejdhongresbon or An'ach'tehbru'a are just silly and unpronounceable.
There are quite a few ways to go about helping you with this.
1) Name Generators
There are hundreds of name generators out there; take from them directly or (better) draw inspiration from them. This is the easy way out of this colossal task.
But getting the right name this way can feel false and silly, and you’d be missing out on a very useful tool to develop your world.
Wouldn’t it be so much better to have the character's name mean something? A name that can be analysed?
2) Find names that mean something.
When I was creating my fantasy ‘bad guy’, I decided he was going to be from a land whose language sounded like Hebrew. I researched words in Hebrew that could fit my character.
3) Get your era right
If you want to name a peasant girl from the 1800s, you should know not use a modern name like Chantelle or Chelsea. Do your research - consider your country, era, class, and native language/accent.
(The fun thing about fantasy realms is that you can decide all of the history yourself! - there are far less rules to stick to.)
4) Say the names out loud.
Are they easy to pronounce? Do they sound believable?
In my opinion, one of the biggest name fails is in Eragon: the bad guy is called Galbatorix…it sounds like a name from a bad computer game.
Say it out loud: it sounds silly and not at all menacing. It’s a right mouthful. It’s clearly a name designed to try to incite fear which, strangely enough, does the exact opposite.
A character’s name has so much of an effect on how the reader views the character.
5) Types of names
If you want to give your character a menacing name, take a leaf from JK Rowling: ‘The Dark Lord’, ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’. Don’t use the name too much, so that when you do it makes much more of an affect.
The name ‘Voldemort’ incites fear, yes? We HP nerds have it ingrained into our minds that that name is almost as bad as the person himself. JK has given the name its own identity. The name ‘Galbatorix’ has no fearsome identity.
Some names come from a famous legend - these are the kind of names you can’t give out lightly. They are assigned to specific characters.
Dracula. Van Helsing. Grendel. Satan.
One would use these names only if they were writing an interpretation of these legends (many have interpreted Van Helsing and Dracula in their own ways). These characters have gone down in legend because of the name, while the character changes in every interpretation.
The Average Joe
Harry Potter. Bilbo Baggins. Bill Sikes. Mrs Coulter.
The name Mrs Coulter still sends chills down my spine; she’s the nasty one in the Dark Materials trilogy.
These names are sometimes the hardest to pick. This is when the author resigns to giving the character a plain, average name to highlight the person within. This is the opposite to the legend name; this average name becomes legend because of the character, not the name itself.
Take a character like Long John Silver. The name ‘John Silver’ itself doesn’t incite danger. But the nickname ‘Long John Silver’ is associated with a legend, which incites danger. A nickname can encapsulate a character. It can be a wonderful tool for any kind of character on the moral spectrum.
6) Make your name distinguishable
Manage your crew of characters by giving them names that are distinctive from one another.
Game of Thrones fans: wasn’t it hard remembering who was who at the beginning? Tyrion and Tywin. Baratheon and Baelish. Varys and Viseyrs. I got them mixed up all the time.
Using alliterative initials can call attention to a certain character.
Bilbo Baggins. Daniel Deronda. Severus Snape.
Think about the consonant and what it’s sound incites.
Bilbo’s B’s sound bumbling. Severus Snape sounds slithery.
8) Check and recheck
You’ve got a great name for a Japanese character. Make damn sure that name isn’t Chinese.
Got a great name for a maiden in 1800s Britain? Make damn sure the name existed back then.
Getting your facts wrong just looks lazy.
The last thing to consider when naming your characters is clarity when saying them out loud. For most readers it's a struggle reading a word in your head if you struggle to say it out loud. And what if your work is ever turned into an audio book? Be careful to make the names unambiguous.
Is it John O’Ketley, or Jono Ketley?