Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows I’m a character creator first, world builder second. I’m fascinated with people/characters. Who they are? What motivates them? What do they desire? What do they like or dislike? What makes them tick?
But the thing that we all identify with characters is first and foremost, their name. Although, in reality, some of us may be better with faces than names, but in stories, we link a particular name with a personality, actions, and words. But what’s really in a name? Well, that’s really up to you, the writer.
I have a different method than one of my best friends who is also a writer. A few weeks back, we spent the evening talking about how we write, what we were writing, and how our processes differ. The conversation about how we create characters really stuck with me. She lets the characters tell them their names and will write scenes with a blank space for where the characters name should be or percolates the story and the characters in her head before she sets the story itself on paper. She has notebooks with plotlines, character traits, etc. so that when the time comes that she can sit down and write she can. But at the time we were talking over half of her characters didn’t have names because they just hadn’t told her what it was. But she does keep a bit of database of names written down so that she can access them for secondary or minor characters later.
My method is entirely different. I work on characters entirely on Microsoft’s OneNote. My first page in my digital notebook is usually where I’m brainstorming. It’ll have names with meanings and ethnicities in brackets, a few characters who I know will be in the novel with a trait or characteristic I know is being attached, and notes on some plot or research I’ve done. It’s a mess but it’s the brainstorm. My second page is always one of my main characters (I often have more than one) and then comes the research of names. I can spend hours looking for a name, one will stick out more and I’ll use it. Sometimes the name I pick works from the beginning and sometimes I go back days, weeks, months, even years later and go, “nope that name doesn’t actually work for you.”
I know from the beginning the name doesn’t quite work but to get to the writing process I will stick a name in. I have characters to this day who still don’t have the right name in my mind or for the character but the name they have right now allows me to write their story.
For instance, I have a story about pirates. One of the characters has, in the last year, been Arian, Crimson Kyd, back to Arian, and then Bleu. Now he’s Blue Raveneau. The only thing that has stayed the exact same is his nickname, Pip (short for pipsqueak) which he dislikes. Another character calls him, freckles, which he doesn’t mind so much.
So, maybe you are like my friend and wait for the character tell you exactly what their name should be. Maybe you’re like me and find names that work the first time and stick around or change them a dozen times before you finally settle on one that feels right to both you and the character. No matter what, the character is always talking to us, telling pieces of who they are as we develop the character and the story. It just depends on who you are and what method works for you best. No one method is correct.
But there is something in the right name. It defines a character so much. It tells the reader something about them (or their parents or the author) because if the character prefers to go by their middle name rather than their first name, there has to be a reason. Or if everyone calls them by their nickname but one character doesn’t that says something about their relationship. And the type of name often works well with the genre (this is why fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal writers often get creative).
Still, without the right name, the world might never have had Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen or Frodo Baggins. A great first name often gets the ball rolling for a great story.
Unless you’re Cormac McCarthy.
- BabyNamesPedia (Great for searching)
- Behind The Name (I love this one for looking at specific ethnicities)
- 20000 Names (I use the Special Categories most for fun paranormal related names)
- Baby Namer
- Baby Names.com
- Surnames Behind The Name (Good starting point for surnames)