Characters 101: What's in a Name? Part 1 - article

So you’ve got an awesome story and have created some memorable characters, but you’re not too sure about their names. You can be safe and do the generic thing, but why take that little something extra away from your story when you don’t have to?

Instead, use a couple of tried-and-true techniques to not only name your cast of players, but to do so with enough oomph to make them memorable.

Tip one: You spent all that time developing them, so use what you know.

Those impressive character profiles you created should allow you to come up with a few words and phrases that define the uniqueness and essence of each character. Use something like Google search to find the meaning of those words or phrases. Better, search out the opposite meaning for some characters to give them an ironic twist with their name, such as calling a big man “Tiny.”

Another great tool for this type of search is to go to baby name websites, many of which are available at no charge. Learn the meanings behind names, as well as ideas to mix and match your characters as you continue to develop them.

Then again you can always resort to the old tried-and-true method of coming up with lists of first and last names. Then start scribbling unique combinations of them until you’re satisfied. Feel free to run your top choices by your friends and family if you have any doubt.

Tip two: Think about the period you are writing about.

When the era in which your story takes place is unfamiliar to you, seek out non-fiction references. Go online or to the library and search for writings that take place in, or refer to, that era and see what people are named. Look at old yearbooks and phone books for ideas. Today no one is calling their son Jedediah, but in 1799 it was a pretty popular name.

Tip three: Avoid stereotypes.

Anyone can name an Italian thug from New Jersey “Rocco”. Try to be unique in your name choices and avoid the obvious. Cheerleaders named Susie, Grandmothers named Pearl, and Mobsters named Vinnie are all over the place. Unless there is some other compelling reason to go with a name that can be perceived as a stereotype, try to come up with an alternative.

Tip four: Remember you are writing the story.

Finding a unique, meaningful name is crucial to the process. And do remember that it is a process. You will be typing and retyping that name over and over probably a hundred times through the life of your manuscript. Remember your reader is going to have to read it a multitude of times, too, so don’t choose a name that is difficult to pronounce, because you may be distracted from your creative process, and your reader could be distracted from your story altogether.

But if you insist on a tough name because it “just fits your character,” then there’s a trick to take the headache out of retyping “Jedediah” a few hundred times. Most word processing software, such as Microsoft Word, allows you to find and replace selected text throughout your document in a few simple keystrokes. Use temporary name substitutes in your manuscript and replace them later. Common keystroke patterns from your keyboard that don’t coincide with any regular words are qwert and yuyu.

Note: For more check out Characters 101: What's in a name? Part 2.

Share this story
Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn