One of the most important things in writing fiction is choosing the names for your characters. Since this comes up on a weekly basis in several writing groups I follow, I figured it’s time for a deeper dive into naming your characters.
The Best Names Are Memorable – And Unmistakable
The best characters inhabiting the best stories have memorable names. They’re distinctive. They embody the character’s purpose in the story. Often there’s a hint to a personality trait in them. Just reading or hearing the name invokes strong visions of what this person is like.
Think of the characters you know and love, and think about their names. Could you picture the story working if the writer changed the character’s name? Sometimes it may, often it doesn’t. When I first read Armor in high school, I admit I had a little trouble following a protagonist named Felix. Then I read about his fight against the ants, and all doubts faded within a page or two. If you haven’t read it, it is a fantastic read and one of my all-time favorite books. Felix is a warrior with a split personality; this entity he calls The Engine will act so he can survive. One of the powers of this story is the way Steakley paints the difference between Felix and The Engine.
There’s a secondary character in Armor worth mentioning – Jack Crow. He’s a thug who escapes from prison. Crow is a bit of a smart ass, out for himself and the name fits. Steakley’s descriptions of his characters is sparse, but reading Armor I had a clear picture what these people looked like.
The Name Is Magic
Choosing a character’s name should give you pause. It’s something you should put some thought and effort into – sometimes significant effort and time. When you hit on a good name, you’re going to know it. Trust me on this one. When you find The Name, the one this character is meant to wear, you will know it. There will be an unmistakable magic in it, and you will hear the character talking to you. If you haven’t experienced this yet, hang in there and keep working. Someday you will.
Like the queen trying to save her daughter in the Rumplestiltskin fairy tale, some will search high and low to find names. Writers will probably stick with names that are familiar with them – but what do you do when you get tired of John, Scott, Peter…what if you exhaust the names that come easily?
I’m not going to do you a huge disservice and tell you the first name you come up with is garbage. I dealt with instructors like that and in my head told them to go F themselves, and I hated every minute of dealing with them. There are No Absolutes in art. I am going to advise that you cool off a bit, then come back to the story, and see if the name fits.
There are all kinds of methods for coming up with names. Some people base characters on people they knew, so the name is the same (or similar). Be careful with this because depending on how you depict someone, they can get angry. The fallout could be anything from an awkward family holiday to a defamation lawsuit. You’ve been warned.
When I first got married and had children, we had a book of baby names that I used for years to look up names for characters. The book has given way to online baby name dictionaries, which are more complete. A quick Google search could find you dozens of these, with many options for ethnicities and even historical periods.
The Thought Exercise
Find a group of names that you feel a connection with. Try them out with your characters. See how well they fit. Like decent gloves or a good pair of shoes, you’ll know when you hit the right one.
Naming: My Experience in The Trip
Many years before writing The Trip, I taught English Composition at a community college. One of my students was an older woman named Sebrinna. She was a talented writer and a pleasure to have in class. I forgot about her until I sat down to outline the story.
As I started the initial outlines, the narrator’s name was Sebrina. As I worked on the outline something wasn’t working, and I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while. Something was off – like that smell in the fridge you just can’t get rid of. After about a week of head-scratching, I finally figured it out.
Sebrina was not the narrator’s name. I didn’t decide that, the narrator did. So I went back to the drawing board for a while and played with names; when I got to Meghan it clicked and the story moved forward once more.
But I found I couldn’t stop thinking about Sebrina. I liked the name, and really wanted to use it in the story because I knew this world had a character named Sebrina. Who was it? It worked for Meghan’s nemesis. As soon as I wrote the sentence to note the character I knew it worked.
There’s no mistaking these two. Meghan’s name sounds down-to-earth, heroic, strong. She’s the light, loyal and has a strong spiritual side without being over-the-top about it. Sebrina has a different ring to it, an extra syllable, some kind of baggage I can explore in the future. She’s the dark, the one who stole Meghan’s boyfriend because she could.
Sebrina doesn’t have many scenes in the novel or movie, but her presence is known and felt throughout. A good villain doesn’t need many scenes.
How about your experience? Have you experienced the magic of when a name really clicks? What happened?