What’s in a Name? (On Naming Characters)

Naming characters is one of the most exciting parts of starting a new story. Especially a new novel, since there are bound to be plenty of them.

Because most of my writing career has consisted of sci-fi and then fantasy, the names usually aren’t very common. And I’m sure that growing up with an uncommon name hasn’t hurt my bent towards the unique. This means I rarely have a whole list of great names off the top of my head, and instead I need to hunt for them.

For that reason, I developed three criteria for searching for names:

  • culture of origin
  • sound
  • meaning

The culture of origin and sound are almost inseparable. By choosing a specific culture (or a couple of cultures) for a kingdom, for instance, it helps ensure that the sound and spelling of names are similar enough to look intentional, and it makes each group distinctive. Choosing two unexpected cultures (like Hindi and Celtic) can result in some great, unexpected combinations that keep things fresh.

Meaning has been an important factor since sometime in middle school, when I first started getting serious about writing. It started with a baby name book, intended to just generate names. However, I soon realized that names’ meanings could provide even more possible ways to find just the right thing and could add some new depth to characters. No, most people won’t look them up or care, but my characters seem to know and understand, and that’s really all that matters.

My old go-to website vanished a while ago, but I think I’ve found a new replacement thanks to NaNoWriMo’s Facebook page. Behind the Name is a fun alternative that has some traditional features but also allows for some of the spontaneity that I thrive on with a random name generator.

Since the new novel already has several cultures involved in naming (from Welsh to Indian), I selected those countries and went for a whirl. The results have been just what I had hoped for. (Isn’t Bran Niamh Mac Giolla Dhuibh a cool name? :) )

How do your characters get their names? Do you have a favorite site or method for name hunting?

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4 responses to “What’s in a Name? (On Naming Characters)

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    I don’t have a system. Sometimes characters show up with their names already attached. One time in a mystery story I had to introduce a bunch of suspects all at once. I used character names from Dark Shadows (and gave each suspect a characteristic of his or her namesake, so I could remember). My characters The Golden have names that contain a whole series of references: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2376.

    I got the last names of my two longest-time characters (Stiglianese and diGregorio) from the phone book. You know, back when there were phone books. :-)

    • S.B. Roberts

      Phone books are the best! I used to flip through, especially for last names. Talk about hours of fun. (Okay, well, maybe not “fun,” but I was absolutely intrigued. : ) )

      And that’s really cool! I love the homage to a series you love.

  • C.B. Wentworth

    I have a baby name book that I rely on to name my characters. Naming characters takes me such a long time – the meaning of the name has to reflect the character’s personality, but also their journey. No easy task! But, the right name always jumps out and that moment is priceless!

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