I remember when I was a teenager, I went through a brief phase in which I disliked my first name. For some reason, I felt it was too formal to fit my emerging identity. Thankfully, that phase was short-lived. Today, I appreciate my first name (Regina) more than I ever have before. I feel fortunate that I have my formal name and a shortened version (Gina) that my family calls me.
Other people aren’t so lucky. Thousands of individuals have their names legally changed due to a number of reasons. More often than not, it’s because they feel the name doesn’t suit them in some way.
If it can be so difficult for real people to accept their birth names, imagine how fictional characters feel about the names you bestow upon them?
“Your name is not only your calling card, it is also something that uniquely distinguishes you from everyone else and may even determine, to a large extent, who you turn out to be in your lifetime,” according to the introduction to The Hidden Truth of Your Name. “The name you ‘wear’ affects not only how others perceive you, but also how you perceive yourself.”
Take Gogol, the lead character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, who grew up hating his name so much that he legally changed it to Nikhil when he was a young adult, believing that a name change would also change the way other people saw him – and more important, how he saw himself.
“If you truly understood the meaning of your name in all its mysterious and hidden aspects, could you use that knowledge to affect your own destiny? Would it be possible to take advantage of the inherent power of your name to alter the direction of your life for the better?” continues THTYN
As writers, we wield a lot of control over our characters’ literary destinies simply by giving birth to their stories. What you name them matters. Some names work well; others not so much. How many times have you changed a character’s name because it didn’t quite fit their personality as the story evolved?
One true sign that your chosen character’s name works well is that it sticks in readers’ heads. So it’s important to make it memorable. Imagine if Harry Potter was named Rudolph Kristoffer?
A strong character name should establish three things, according to the Reedsy blog.
* Clarity — The right name helps readers differentiate that character from other major players in your story.
* Character – The right name reveals personality and type of character without the author having to explain anything.
* Bankability – The right name can make your character iconic.
Further, there are certain things to keep in mind when considering possible names for your characters. NY Book Editors offers these tips:
A character’s age – Some names are better suited for young adults while others are better suited for older adults. For example, you rarely come across a Dorothy among today’s teens, while it was significantly more popular sixty years ago.
A character’s parents – Remember that it’s the character’s parents who name their child, not you. Consider what their logic may be for naming their child a certain way.
The location of the story – Names vary based on location. Mary in the United States is Maria in most Latin countries and Marie in France.
Genre of the story – Writing in certain genres may dictate different styles of names. For example, in science fiction and fantasy, the names may be more obscure and more creative. Think Katniss in The Hunger Games or Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series.
The general rule of thumb is to create names that are easy to pronounce, easy for readers to remember, and fit the character’s personality.
Other naming tips apply. Avoid names that sound alike (Kelsey and Chelsea), names that start with the same letter (Tim and Tom) or names that are close to one another (Laurie and Lauren). Make sure each character has their own unique name so readers see them as distinctive characters and personalities.
For help, there are numerous sources to go for inspiration. You can pick up a baby name book or phone book for starters, or look up the top names of the year in Google. If you’re writing a story set in the 1950s, it might be wise to research names that were popular in that year. Similarly, if your story takes place one hundred years from now, understand that many of today’s popular names may not fit that future environment. You’ll have to create a few names that don’t exist now.
Also try automated name generators, which you can find at Name Generator Fun and the Random Name Generator. Some of these sites will even provide brief personality descriptions so you can find one that suits your characters.
My favorite source is The Hidden Truth of Your Name, a compilation of names and their meanings based on three mystical interpretations: The Kabbalah, runes and numerology. The book also provides spelling variations for more unique possibilities. The detailed descriptions provide insights into the type of person/character they can become. Reading about my own name provided clues to my personality, many of which were spot on!
Naming characters takes a lot more thought than you imagine. You have to consider the type of person you want them to be, the role they will play in your book and their age and cultural background. It can be challenging, but it can also be fun.
What’s in a name? Plenty. With the right name, your characters can reveal subtle hints about who they are and who they want to become. If you’re lucky, they’ll like the name as much as you do.