A Character By Any Other Name

Charles Dickens was very good at naming characters: Ebenezer Scrooge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Seth Pecksniff…While the rest of us can never hope to compete with such a great character-namer as Dickens, we can make an earnest attempt to not be overly bad at it. Names need not be overly creative to have a good ring to them. Harry Potter, for example, is a perfectly ordinary moniker, but it has ingrained itself in the imagination of the populous so much that hearing either part on its own calls to mind the whole. Or maybe that’s just me being an obsessive nerd. Either way, coming up with a good name, whether it’s completely pedestrian or totally out-there, is an important part of character development.

Sometimes names just hit you–for instance, the two ghosts in “Ravenfeather” (the ‘published masterwork’ I keep talking about, for you newbies) just had to be Samuel and Charlotte. Such a moment of serendipity has not occurred again for me; naming takes a bit of work. Since I tend to write stories set in far-away or nonexistent places and times, most of my names are of my own invention, but I don’t like to pull them out of thin air. I often raid the shelves of history and legend for inspiration, or plain old loot. Jennet from my novel is named for the heroine in the Scottish legend “Tam Lin.” (Fun fact to that effect: Hrothgar, the original dwarf king in the Inheritance Cycle, is also the name of a human king in “Beowulf.”)

One of my favorite other resources for names is Behind the Name. You can search by meaning, country of origin, even starting and ending letters. There’s also loads of fun stuff like name days and random name generators. Behind the Name is especially useful if you have a certain kind of name in mind and want to see if such a name exists. A simple Google search can yield a lot, as well. I’m working on a concept for a Poe-ish universe that could become the setting for some short stories, a novel, or maybe even a comic, and a search for dark-sounding names yielded this list, and this one too.

What do you find most important about a character’s name, or do you not think it really matters? How do you come up with names for your characters? Tell me about it in the comments!

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8 responses to “A Character By Any Other Name

  1. For me, it depends on the story… sometimes I’ve gotten a good character name in my head already, and a preconceived notion of what this character is like… other times I drop in a ‘John’ or “Susan’ generic name and as the story progresses they seem to name themselves… I’ve learned to never kill too much time thinking of the name, since it will come in time… hopefully before the end of the story.

    Armand Rosamilia

    • I’m the sort of person who needs to have a good name for a character planned out in advance. Having a character not officially named bothers me. It’s just my writing personality, I suppose…Thanks for the comment!

  2. My names always have to be readable. I love names like Llewellyn, Welsh sounding and awesome, but if you can’t tell how to pronounce it easily at first glance, I probably won’t use them. Thus, I have characters like Sebase, Drean, Heazen, Dolor, Thoris, and Umber. All those were from Wise. I also like to pick the first letter before I actually choose the name. For instance, I wanted an F name for Feiron. I went through Femur and Felon before I settled on Feiron. I still think both names mentioned describe him pretty well, though. Of course, you’ve heard about my need to name characters in a silly way: two brothers in Wise are named Toestads and Weetthins, after two of my family’s favorite cracker brands, Toasteds and Wheat Thins. Occasionally, these silly names will be slightly lacking on the ease-of-pronunciation side, but we all make sacrifices for humor.
    You mentioned the Inheritance Cycle. How are you doing on Inheritance?

  3. There’s a tune called Tam Lin. Scottish tune, probably. (I’m into folk music, play quite a bit of it.)

    I struggle with names. Bronwyn took me most of a day to name, hunting through numerous baby name websites and eventually settling on that one. If it’s set modern-day, I’ll work out how old the character is, therefore what year they were born. Bronwyn’s Welsh, and she’s 18/19, so I’ll go online and look up most popular Welsh names from 1993… (okay, I didn’t for her, but I have for some characters). That means I can have a name that really fits the time period and ‘dates’ the character.

    • If I got more into writing stories set in the “real world” (i.e., countries and time periods we recognize), I would probably do the same thing as you in the name-researching division. I might have to soon, in fact–I have a half-finished short piece written in the first person and I have no idea what the protagonist’s name is as yet!

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