Some help on picking character names

The names of a cast of characters can say a lot about the author. Because my parents gave me a very simple, extremely popular biblical name for my generation (as in, when walking down the hall at my high school and someone called out “Hey, Sarah!” about three heads turned in response), I tended to give my characters odd names that I had never heard before.

The problem was that I knew nothing of the culture from which the names were borrowed.

While critiquing, I’ve identified other inherent problems, such as having a cast of simple English names and one token ethnic name, or a fantasy setting with keyboard smash names that look like drunken Welsh slurring.

Names are a lot more than basic labels for your characters, but don’t require the selling of any souls. Here’s a handful of suggestions to possibly consider as you name your characters:

  1. Ask your character what kind of name they want. They might take what you gave them and change it anyway. Say their parents named their little girl Sally, but she tells you she’s transgender and wants to be called Sal, or maybe change the name altogether even without your permission.
  2. Similarly, names affect how characters identify themselves and how other characters identify each other. A character with a very unique name might be very conscious of it, or they might wear it proudly. A secondary character might misspell or misspeak your character’s name, maybe intentionally or unintentionally.
  3. Try, if possible, to avoid common modern names. There’s nothing like reading a book and constantly associating the main character’s name with your second cousin who pulls the wings off of bees (unless, of course, your character IS the second cousin who pulls the wings off of bees).
  4. Or, it might just be that your character has to have a common modern name for whatever reason. Don’t despair if they do. A current trend in naming babies is to alter the original spelling of a name. This is a good way to differentiate your character and make their name more memorable, but be certain it’s realistic that whoever named the character is/are likely to do this.
  5. If you’ve picked a name and grown attached to it, and then read a book that uses the exact same name, don’t panic. If this is without a doubt the name of your character, then leave it as it is. When your book is published, it will most likely be several years after the book you’ve just read (on average, it takes 1.5-2 years from a publishing contract to the shelves). Don’t worry about it for now and write on.
  6. But if you’re super worried about it, try giving your main character a different nickname. For example, Elizabeth can be Beth, Liz, Lizzy, Liza, Eli, or Eliza.
  7. Don’t get too caught up in the meaning behind names unless the culture of your character forms names around the meaning. Your character is likely to give the name new meaning by the end of the story anyway. As an example, when people hear the name “Hermione”, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t how the name is derived from Hermes.
  8. Often a trap that I’ve seen writers fall into is naming a character after something prominent and/or universally symbolic, which will then play into the story. An example is the character who betrays the main character having the name of Judas. Don’t do that. Even if Judas doesn’t betray the main character, the reader will spend the whole book waiting for him to.
  9. If you have a fantasy setting, base it upon actual history to create a realistic foundation. Look at the way names were formed, from what, and why. (As an example, the names in pre-colonial Southeast Asian kingdoms were influenced quite differently than the names in Europe during the rise of the Catholic Church.)
  10. If you have POC in your cast, make sure you’ve done all your research and fully understand the culture and its history before you look at names. Also consider the generation of your character. If they’re the second generation to live in the States, then they might have an English first name, or both an English name and a name from their heritage. A country that was heavily colonialized might commonly use English, Spanish, or other European names already.
  11. Make sure you understand how the language and the formation of names in a particular culture work. I took Chinese in both high school and college, but my professor admonished me for creating such an unattractive, nonsensical Chinese name for a project. It forced me to question the names of all my Chinese characters (and also the origin, because common name dictionaries don’t differentiate between particular regions and dialects of China).
  12. Don’t be daunted by the aforementioned if you have characters with cultures unfamiliar to you. Research is an inherent part of writing, and effective and adequate research forms a solid and realistic foundation (or interpretation, in the case of fantasy) for your characters. Make sure you’ve done more than enough before you even start looking at names.

Don’t stress yourself out over the naming of a character. If you pick one and decide it just isn’t working, then try again. With a first draft, perfection is the enemy. Do all your necessary preparations beforehand and don’t be afraid to get it wrong as you write. That’s what revision is for. And if a critique partner suggests you change a name, remember it’s all inevitably up to you.

Besides, when you get your literary agent, he or she may tell you to change the name you worked hard to choose anyway. Then you might decide to flip all the tables and start the process all over again.

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