Today I want to take a moment to talk about names, character names especially. Now, I may have an edge here from my years of role-playing games, but I still spend a good bit of time trying to find the perfect name for my characters in any endeavor. A good name helps make a character real, an excellent name can make a character memorable, and a ill-thought name just gnaws at the reader’s mind. So when I am faced with the task of naming a new character, there are a few ways I go about making sure that I have picked the right moniker for the personality I need to convey.
A lot of people will suggest starting with a baby name book (no need for the book though, there are plenty of online baby name sites these days) and while that is not a bad place to start, I often find it incredibly limiting. You are not naming a child who needs to have a good chance at a normal life (though my own daughter’s name might belie that particular interest), this character is not (in most cases) an extension of you and your partner who will carry on your legacy, and you do not need to appease family members. You need a name that readers will latch on to, care about, and remember. You need a name that says something interesting about the character and perhaps evokes a immediate connection in the reader.
Baby name books may be good for quick background characters, but they often fall flat when it comes to the main cast in a story. The times I will use a baby name book are when I want a character’s name to have a particular meaning (and then I do a reverse search by meaning to find names that match), or when I want it to start with a particular letter or sound.
For instance, the protagonist of my upcoming middle grade book is named, Persnickety Mayweather Jones. That is a name you are not going to find in a baby name book! But it is the perfect name for this character, tough it was not terribly easy to arrive at.
No, really. I will start with a list of attributes/traits/values that apply to the character and then scour the thesaurus for synonyms that might actually work. Often this takes a few iterations, and only serves as a starting point. Persnickety’s name was actually arrived at through this process. I started with words I knew would describe her and her situation, and then started spider-webbing through similar words on thesaurus.com. When I fell upon this one, I knew it would work. Then I just had to find a middle name that flowed.
Which brings me to the next consideration, (though I am leapfrogging another source and will come back to it), the actual sound and mouth feel of the name.
As a reader, I personally hate when I cannot figure out how to pronounce a name, and often find myself just going with what sounds right based on most of the letters I see on the page. I recently read a book with a Swedish name in it, though it was not a Nordic story, and spent hours just trying to find the pronunciation of the name online. When I finally tracked down what was the most reliable audio, I found that I was too far along in the book to mentally switch to this odd pronunciation, and just left it with what I had already settled on in my head, even though I now knew it was wrong.
The sound of a name is crucial, as it informs so much of the dialogue, the character, and the way people interact with said character. If it has an odd sound, do their friends call them a nickname instead? Is it easily confused with another sounding name (Caroline vs Coreline), and if so does that actually work to further the story? Is the name fun to say? (Persnickety Mayweather Jones is a blast to say, go ahead and try it out. Seriously, try it. Pretend to be a scolding teacher when you do, or Scar from Lion King…) Grubby Wormtoe is another name that showed up simply because it was fun and silly to say. I actual decided on that one while playing around with redcap puppets at a west coast festival. The puppet had big feet, and it stuck.
There is also something very important about making sure the parts of the name sounds right together, that the syllables and patter of it work. A long multi-syllabic first name tends to go better with a short last name, and if you have a long last name then short first names (or nicknames) seem to be the auditory norm. Two short names also seems to work well, (Tim Gunn, Amy Pond, Bob Dole, etc.) But ultimately, as an author, you need to think about your future readers. Please, make sure they have an honest chance at being able to pronounce it, whatever you settle on.
Finally, my frequent go to sources for my particular style of writing are history and mythology. I like reusing the lesser known names of heroes, villains, and monsters from ancient tales. I love digging up an old name that I have not heard in a long time (if ever) and breathing new life into it. For instance Circe, Mohra, Inguma, and Grue (all from the Completely Inappropriate Tales of Gandersnitch the Goblin) are mythological names, though in Grue’s case it is shortened. (Author’s Note: Grue in The Roanoke Sessions is not the same Grue as appeared in the Last Meeting of the Homeless Heart. I actually did not even realize I was reusing the name till right now. Grue in my current story is loosely based on the video game Zork, and the things that would eat you in the dark. Grue in my Gandersnitch book was a shortened form of grugatch, a mythological creature.)
Usually, I will use all of these different methods in conjunction. One of the characters in my current story, (The Roanoke Sessions, available on this site for free every other Monday) is a prime example of this. Warning: very minor spoilers ahead.
The psychiatrist in my tale, Dr. Ignatius Fade, started at a mythological point, Ignis Fatuus or the Latin name for will-o-wisps. But calling a character Ignis Fatuus, at least in a modern tale, flat out doesn’t work. For one it is too obvious, for two, it just doesn’t sound like a contemporary name. So next I started checking translations on Ignis Fatuus. I wasn’t getting anywhere useful with that until I stumbled upon a French translation which included the word “Fade”. Bingo! Now I had a last name.
Ignis Fade could work for a name, but to me that seems like a dumpy old lady in a country kitchen in Wales during WWII. Not sure why, but it just does. So this is the point I turned to the baby book. I knew I needed a name that started with I, sounded like Ignis, and possibly had the same meaning – and that is when I find this:
Ignatius is a male given name of presumed Latin or Etruscan origin, believed to mean “fiery one” (compare the word “ignite”).
And there you have it, an actual name that not only fits the character, but it also sounds good, it fits the world in which he lives, and it is relatively easy to pronounce!
Now, I will admit that I am something of a name-o-phile. I am constantly on the look out for interesting names, and when I find them, I will write them down for later use. One of my favorite names came from a series of roadsigns along the highway 71 in Florida. Grundy, Dooley, & Smar. When I first saw these, one after the other several miles apart, I started laughing, because to me it sounded like a law firm from a TV commercial. That was almost 20 years ago, and though I have tried for ages to find a story to put them in, (and they did appear once or twice in role playing games that I ran, but never to much success) they will actually make their debut in my series on Monday. Sometimes you just have to sit on a good name until the rest of the story catches up with them.
In parting, I leave you with a list of links to my favorite random name generators. When all else fails, and inspiration just wont strike, I turn to some of these. In fact, the name of a ship (The Unkind Karl) in my upcoming kids book came from a random name generator. I also feel it wise to point out that names are not written in stone (unless you are searching through old graveyards for inspiration.) There are many times when I have changed a character’s name halfway through a draft, when I realized that it just was not working for me anymore. This is ok, maybe even a good thing! In the end, it doesn’t matter how you find a name, but finding the right one does make a world of difference. Enjoy and happy hunting!
Random Name Generators:
Seventh Sanctum – http://www.seventhsanctum.com/
Fantasy Name Generators – http://fantasynamegenerators.com/
Behind the Name – http://www.behindthename.com/random/