As much as people might say that a name is only a label and it is the person who gives it meaning, when it comes to characters, you can get a lot from a name. Why do you think there are so many hero’s called Jack? It’s a strong, masculine name. Tiffanys are expected to be blond and ditzy while Sarahs will be down to earth girls next door. And readers will almost always be suspicious of Victors and Seths until they get to know them.
We get these associations from varied places; celebrities, fictional characters, classic stories and general social reinforcement. It’s worth being aware of the impression a character’s name gives, by thinking where your own impressions and associations come from when you think of it. As with a lot of things in writing, just thinking critically and being aware of things puts you more in control of end effect.
Writers are creative types, so they shouldn’t have trouble thinking up names for their characters, right? Oh, if only it were that simple. Sometimes a name just materialises with a character, other times you just can’t find a name that suits the character and sometimes you just can’t come up with enough, diverse names for all those bit part characters. I know I for one seem to end up with a Sam in half the things I write.
I find that choosing character names is very much like house hunting; when you find the right one, it clicks and you know it.
So here’s a little advice on how I navigate my way through the sea of names:
- Avoid having main characters with the same initial, especially if they are the same gender. If you have Stephanie and a Susan, for example, your reader may get confused until they develop a stronger sense of the characters, and then you may find them skipping back to that early chapter to check if it was Susan or Steph who said that thing before.
- Alliteration between first and surname often comes across as comical, so avoid it for characters you want people to take seriously.
- Names that are difficult to pronounce can put readers off. How many people have bailed on Tolkien after tangling with one too many unfamiliar names? If you’re writing fantasy or similar where you want unique names, try to make them a) short and b) pronounceable under common language rules. That way, the name can be unique and distinctive, but still rooted in the familiar.
- If a name doesn’t immediately jump out, stay open minded at first. Write a short list of options.
- Use a name generator to expand beyond your standard pool of names and avoid repeating the same names over and over.
Here are a few name resources I’ve used before:
Last week I did a quick review of writing software, Scrivener. Scrivener has a built in name generator with a vast selection of country/language filters to choose from. You can select starting initials for first and last name
A very simple name generator for US style names with only one variable, obscurity. Can be useful if you don’t have too strong an idea of what sort of name you are looking for.
Allows you to set gender, age and country of origin, but only generates one name at a time. Although the names it generates can be quite good, it is more time consuming to go through a reasonable number.
This web publication on medieval English names not only provides an extensive list of names, it also gives extra information about prevalence and naming trends. Perfect if you’re setting you story in this period.