Whenever a child is born, one of first things the parents do is give him or her a name. It marks the beginning of their relationship and may influence how the child feels about herself, or how others perceive her. Authors are the parents of their characters, and need to understand the effects of the names they choose to use in their stories.
When creating a name you should consider how it will come across to readers. Here are some tips on picking names for your characters:
1. Will it be appropriate for the time period and setting? Names that are popular today may not be right for someone born in an earlier time, and an American name may not fit a child born in Europe or Asia. Choose one that is consistent with the norms of the society and era the person is from, or lives in.
2. Will it be easy to remember yet unique enough to distinguish that character from others? Simple names like John, Mary, Ashley, and Jim may blend in too much for a main character, especially if there are several others with similar names. A distinctive last name may help, but keep in mind that most characters won’t be called by their full name. Giving them a nickname could work but it’s generally best to be consistent with the names so readers don’t get confused.
3. Will it convey the desired image of that character? A name that connotes something evil, like Damien, Beelzebub, or Lucifer, wouldn’t be a good choice for the hero in a romance—unless it is purposely done to achieve a story goal, such as showing how he overcame the negative impression his name gave to people. On the other hand it might be too obvious as a name for a bad guy.
4. Will it be a stumbling block by disrupting the flow of the story, or will it add interest? Fantasy books aren’t the only ones that use unique spellings to make names interesting; the modern trend in baby names includes such devices as hyphens and apostrophes. Even though readers may not say the names outloud, they will mentally struggle to pronounce the character’s names when they see them, so unusual spellings can interrupt the flow of the story. Also, a difficult name won’t be as memorable. As an example, Bilbo Baggins is odd but easy to remember. Mr. Darcy, Tarzan, and Gandalf are other names that seem simple but have become recognizable in real life because of the characters they represent.
5. Will the characters’ names sound too similar, causing confusion? Names that begin with the same letter or sound, or the same pattern at the end—like Clara, Carla, and Sandra-will make it harder to distinguish them from each other. This can be a problem with last names, too, such as Johnson and Robinson. Several short, common names in a story can also be confusing, so vary the sounds and length of your characters’ names.
Just like characters, we didn’t have control over the name our parents gave us, but it still can tell others something about our lives–like what generation or ethnicity we were born in. The name we use can also say a lot about us, especially if it is a nickname or one we choose to go by. Perhaps we use our middle name instead of our first name, or use both; explaining such things in a story can help make the characters more realistic, more lifelike.
In case you need help coming up with interesting names, here’s a site that lists name generators for various types of characters. Whether you need an authentic foreign name, or a name for a fairy or alien, you’ll find lots of choices at: http://www.todays-woman.net/writing-resources-cat-338.html
Here’s another helpful, fun site for names: http://www.babynames.com/character-names.php
How do you choose names for your characters? Do you get to know their personalities first, or start with the name and develop the character to go with it? Do you have any helpful tips to add on naming characters? What names from fiction are memorable to you?