On the Naming of Characters

March 23, 2018 in Publishing, Writing

The naming of characters is a difficult matter…

I was asked about how I choose names for characters and I thought my answers might be of more general interest, so I’m making it into its own post.

For me the most important part of a name is mouth feel. I always say a name out loud before I use it. It has to feel in my mouth like I want to feel on the page. Usually that’s a least partially emotional. Harsh characters need harsh names. Friendly characters need approachable names. Etc.

Names need to be distinct. I do that in part on a purely mechanical basis. Every time I introduce a new character I make sure the name doesn’t sound too much like anyone already in the story and I rarely have two important characters that have the same first initial in their name. No stories with Mark, Mike, Mack, Mara, and Moira.

Shorter is usually better for me. As a personal preference I prefer one-two syllable names, and/or longer names need to be easy to shorten. Valerie to Val, for example. Even if never use the short form, I think about how that might work and who might use it. This is a place where it’s important to remember the class structure of your world.

The following over broad and purely a tool of narrative: Upper class/aristocratic characters are more like to have long names, and more likely to use the full name in some circumstances. Lower class characters will often have shorter or truncated names. Nicknames are more likely to be used at the top and bottom end of the class structure and for criminals than in the middle. For the wealthy it might be because they use a smaller total pool of names and repeat names more often. So you might get Hal for Henry V to distinguish him from the other Henrys. For lower class characters it might again be partially the reusing of names and partially because less social and physical mobility make it more likely a childhood nickname will carry forward. For criminal characters it’s as much to obfuscate real identity as to identify.

When I’m looking for names, I steal freely from history, classical literature, and fiction where that’s appropriate to the venue. I have a terrible memory for names of people I meet, but I’m quite good at names in stories. For the names adapted from fiction I am likely to change spellings, or to simply use the name as a starting point. So, something like Marak, might become Moric.

When I’m working to come up with a new name for science fiction or contemporary or historical fantasy I will often cruise baby name sites looking for names that start with what feels like the right first letter. Modern names for contemporary names. Historical names for historical fiction. For those latter I might try to find things like: what were the 50 most popular women’s names in 1928?

For secondary world fiction, I go to baby name sites for the root language of the culture I’m working in. So, if I were writing a secondary world rooted in Germany in the 1200s I’d look for German names and I’d alter them to suit mouth feel and appropriate spelling. I’d also look for Austrian, Swiss, Italian, Polish, etc, because languages bleed across borders. Names especially bleed as people move around.

I also look at both place names and last names appropriate to the setting I’m using, as names don’t stay in a steady relationship. People often get named for the place they’re from. Or they might be given a first name that used to be a last name to keep it alive and in the family.

Think about the language of the place you’re creating. How does it sound? If you don’t want to build your own language, look at others. What do they sound like? What sounds repeat. Build your names from syllables that are common in that language.

Another useful tool is to check out work by someone else that’s writing in a world that feels like the world you’re using. How do their names feel and sound? Do they have commonalities? A system? Can you build a system that works in a similar way.

Remember to think about where your character is from. Are they local to the setting? Are the from a great distance away? What’s their social class? Are they from an old family with a long history? Are they an orphan who doesn’t know their antecedents? A main character needs to stand out. One way that can be accented is by naming them in a way that violates the general rules of names for the area or of their class. If your character is from someplace far away, how do naming conventions work there? Is there a lot of cultural bleed so that people will know how to pronounce the name? Is that a problem for the character. Etc.

In the end, I always always always come back to that mouth feel. Does the name I’ve picked up from whatever source material feel right when I say it? If it does, than it will usually feel right on the page. If I’m feeling doubtful, I’ll try saying it different tones and registers. How does it sound if I’m yelling it? How does it sound when it’s spoken in the ways it’s mostly likely to be used in the story? With affection. Loathing. Fear. Etc.