The Name Game-- Keeping Character Names Consistent in Your Novel

Mar 15, 2012

I've been thinking a lot about names lately. We've been trying to come up with a name for our baby girl, and I spent weeks scouring name lists for the perfect name. Not too popular, not too weird, goes well with our last name, has a good meaning to it...it was a long process. Happily, we finally found one we love.

I do something similar when naming my characters. However, naming characters can be even more complicated. Names are a part of culture, which technically means that you're building your world when you name anything in your story-- the main character, her friends, her parents, the town they live in. Even before the internet, certain styles of names were common across a culture. There may even be rules to it, like how in Ghana, everyone receives a name according to the day or the week they're born.

Here are a few quick tips to not just name your characters, but to make sure the names fit the world you're trying to build.

1. Keep the names consistent in structure.
Certain naming trends will be consistent across your culture. Maybe "A" names are popular, or names ending in an "en" sound. Maybe short names are popular, or longer ones. You obviously don't have to be completely rigid in naming characters to these trends, but keep in mind that unless you give a good reason, you don't want names too far from each other. Having a character named Kenna and another named Filomena is going to be a little odd. Though if you want it that way on purpose, go for it! After all, many people purposely choose to name outside of trends.

2. Be careful of associations with other things.
I originally named the town in TUGL Concord. It was a desert town with a unique culture and history, but my critique group kept getting confused. Concord, Massachusetts kept coming to their minds, and contradicted the setting I was attempting to create. If readers associate a name with a certain thing (like a popular celebrity), it might ruin the image you're trying to create.

3. Keep cultural differences in mind.
I have a character in TUGL who grew up away from the town-- in fact, grew up in another country. In addition, she's Muslim. I had to keep those things in mind when naming her. Her name wouldn't follow the general system of the rest of the characters. If different cultures mingle in your novel, that will show in their names. Think The Hunger Games. Different districts with different cultures focused on different things in their names (Glimmer vs. Katniss). Even different generations will have differences in their names.

4. Meaning is important-- and so is fun.
J.K. Rowling is a great example of naming with important meaning. Voldemort's name means "flight from death" in French-- rather perfect for him. But also remember to have fun. Don't get so regimented that your names all feel too similar and mechanical. Have fun playing with them!

So, my friends, how do you name your characters? What are your current favorites among your character names? 


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26 comments:

Jenilyn Tolley said...

Some of my character names come pretty much with the character idea and some of my characters are nameless (or go through several changes) for a long time. For me, the names have to fit because they're so tied in with the idea of them in my head. My favorite resource is a baby name book called BEYOND JENNIFER AND JASON, MADISON AND MONTANA. It's fantastic! Holly Black even mentioned that she uses it at WIFYR last year. Anyway, it has the names divided up into categories, which I love. Things like Southern Belle, Biblical, Celtic, etc.

Melanie Fowler said...

I had to change my characters names early on because it was 'predictable'. So I changed them to something better, something that fits them, and that's fun.

Jolene Perry said...

Kelley and I were just talking about this because we had to re-name someone in our book. We had twins named Gary and Jerry, but Jerry wasn't in the book long enough for people to easily distinguish their names, so we had to change one.
Then we ran into the problem of finding a name that worked for him, but wasn't so good that we might be mad later in that we'd used a great name for a secondary character, lol.

Since I write contemp, I do a LOT of looking at baby names lists.

J. A. Bennett said...

This is why I write contemporary becasue I am terrible at coming up with names. Sounds like yours will be epic though :)

The Golden Eagle said...

I usually do a Google search for names of a specific type, i.e. Chinese, Irish, or whatever nationality I think would fit the character. Or I'll use a translator to find foreign words for a character trait. I also do this if I come up with a name on my own, since I wouldn't want to find out the word means stupid in another language or something along that line--I read on Kristin Cashore's blog once that she found out after her book was published that one of her MCs' names, Po, meant "butt" in German.

Rachel Morgan said...

JK Rowling did amazing things with Voldemort's name! There's the anagram thing with Tom Marvolo Riddle, AND the fact that it means "flight from death"... So clever.

These are important points you make. I didn't realize until I was quite a long way into one of my WIPs (set in a fantasy world) that all the male characters had names ending in "en"! I was like, wow, my subconscious is so clever! Lol ;-)

Katie Dodge said...

Good tips. :) I write historical so I love going through websites that list the names of a certain time period. Censuses are great for that.

Rachel Giddings said...

Hahaha. Look, I made Shallee's blog! It's not my fault I grew up in Boston, MA, and that's what Concord made me think of...
Very helpful and very timely post! I'm still trying to work out some names in my WIP and you have some great points.

Laura Josephsen said...

I love names. And I like the website behindthename.com. It has a random name generator that has been helpful for me in finding occasional last names--I can select by culture and see what names pop up. ;)

I love names. I love finding out who a character is based on their names. One of my books, "Confessions from the Realm of the Underworld (Also Known as High School)", was about six sisters whose mother was a professor of mythology and folklore, and all six girls had been named after women in Greek mythology. (Thus, the reason for the long title--the main character was Persephone.)

In my two book "Rising" series, I drew on English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish names for characters. This meant I had to write a pronunciation guide for some of the characters. One of my main characters was Mairwyn, and her name is Welsh and pronounced "mire-win." For that series, I used a lot of Latin words as a base for naming countries and people groups. (Like, I have a culture that has wings, and they are referred to as Alatun. This was from the Latin word "Alatus," which means "winged" or "winged one".)

Names are super, super fun, and sometimes my characters waltz in and go, "Hey, I'm _____." And other times I know that a character's name should start with an E, so I go hunting for E names until one clicks.

Shelley Sly said...

Names are so important to me. I like my cast of characters to all have different enough names so that they're not easily confused with one another (no two characters with the same letter name unless those two characters don't interact much.) I also like characters in the same book to have the same "feel" -- either all contemporary, all unique, etc. Great topic!

Jeff Hargett said...

I wish naming my characters came as easily to me as naming my fictional nations and races. With rare exceptions, I try to keep most character names to three syllables or less. (If more, then I try to provide a nickname, title, etc.) I shudder at thinking a reader will skim over a character's name because they don't know how to pronounce it.

I do try to keep a certain sound or feel to names for various geographic regions or ethnic backgrounds and such. Names from one of my nations, for example, has lots of V/K/N letters. Some have surnames while others are "Son of/Daughter of" and still others have multiple names or use positional/vocational based names.

I just don't think that you can have Joe be friends with Rakishnel who was born next door without some kind of explanation. :-)

Can you tell I liked this post?

Johanna Garth said...

Names are so hard for me. I love the idea of picking names with meanings that tie into the story or to the character's role in the story.

Carmen Esposito said...

Names don’t come easy for me so I go to baby naming websites for ideas. Depending on the setting and culture, I search for appropriate surnames. Once, I used a Swedish surname for the antagonist and it worked well for the story.

Carrie-Anne said...

I've been a big name nerd for many years, so I love making lists of names and researching names. My personal naming style, particularly for girls, is primarily classical eccentric and classical unusual, so I tend towards names that aren't so common or popular, like Octavia, Justine, Eulalia (Yu-LAHL-yah), Eunomia, Xanthe, Ernestine, Livia, and Quintessa.

Since I also have Russian and Estonian characters, and European characters who survive the Shoah, I enjoy using less-common names from their respective countries of origin instead of the same common names most Westerners are familiar with. Usually, if I use a more common or trendy name, it's for a secondary character.

Currently, my favorite naming database is Behind the Name, and I also like Name Nerds. In the past, I've used 20,000 Names and Kabbalarians (before the latter switched to a paid service). I also enjoy finding uncommon names in books. I was introduced to many beautiful Italian names through The Decameron, one of my favoritest books.

I think it's short-sighted writing "advice" to name your characters after your friends' and neighbors' kids instead of using names you really like. I always preferred characters with less common names, and it dates a book quicker if all your characters have common, Top 50 names tied to a specific decade.

Some of my own favorite character names are Adicia, Lyubov (Lyuba), and Cinnimin. I originally used the name Adicia because its supposed meaning was "mal-treated," and this character definitely gets a rough deal through life. Years later, when I was going back to start the book over from scratch and memory, I found out it really means "injustice," after the Greek goddess of injustice. I felt that were very symbolic. My main female Russian character was originally named Amy (back when I didn't know jack about real Russian names), but I thought it were also very symbolic when I discovered the Russian equivalent is Lyubov, which literally means "love," something she wants so badly but has a hard time recognizing or keeping for a long time. And Cinnimin started out as a misspelling, but I liked it too much to change it after realizing my mistake. It looks softer, prettier, and more phonetic than Cinnamon.

Tara Tyler said...

love making up names! usually go with the first thing that comes to mind. but sometimes i use internet lists for ethnic authenticity...

Naina Gupta said...

I kept in mind culture. Since all of my characters were from an Asian background I thought that it would be important to have a name that was simple and easy for a non-Indian to pronounce as well.
For some of my characters as well, I kept in mind meaning. I thought about my characters and looked for a name that would suit the kind of person that they were. For example someone who was very attractive was called 'Rupali' aka someone who is beautiful. There was another girl who was called 'Vidya' meaning knowledge.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Some of my character names just pop into my head, while I struggle to find the names for other character. I try to go for authenticity. I also like to have fun while naming my characters.

Shallee, I have tagged you on my blog.

Angie said...

I love my baby name book!

Misha Gericke said...

It's funny, but my characters tell me their names.

Doorways have some interesting things behind naming, which is awesome, but it's almost as if they were always there, instead of me thinking about them. :-D

Peggy Eddleman said...

I don't have a great system. I just keep a file of names I like, and when I need one and one doesn't immediately come to mind, I go to the file to see if one fits. And then it has to fit in with the feel of the others. Since my book is post-apocalyptic, and kind of a secluded town, they can't be completely different types of names. I love how JK gave her characters names that fit the types of characters so well! I always wish I was better at that.

Adrienne said...

Naming my characters is a painful, difficult process for me. I've used the phone book, websites, and friend's names. J.K. Rowling's characters all have such wonderful names!

Peaches Ledwidge said...

I randomly selected some of the names for some of my characters while others were carefully selected.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

I love naming characters, and sometimes can't get moving on a scene if a new character is involved until I know the name is just right. I tried to rename one of my characters once, and it was really strange. The character just balked. She originally was Melanie, and I tried to change it to Jessica (a popular name), and she just had to be Melanie again before I could write her dialogue.
I love all the name sites on Google. In my latest book that takes place in Victorian England, I found wonderful Victorian names to use. What would we do without the Internet?

Lauren S. said...

I recently discovered the girl name "Austine." I was trying to name a rather tough and fiesty girl, and I think this fits perfectly. I'm really excited about it!

I like choosing relatively normal names for characters, but not relatively common or popular.

Esther Lowery said...

Great post!
For my characters, as it's set in a fictional world, I chose Hebrew as the base language. It's kind of like the Ancient Language of that world. So I try to choose Hebrew names for the Southerners (who are the ones who use it the most).

swopna said...

Names don’t come easy for me so I go to baby naming websites for ideas. Depending on the setting and culture, I search for appropriate surnames. Once, I used a Swedish surname for the antagonist and it worked well for the story.indian names

 
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