The Many Ways To Name Your Characters

I haven’t written an article for a while because I’ve been focused on CampNaNo and getting some short stories written for people to enjoy. However, I have read a few things on various websites recently that have prompted me to look at how I build up my characters. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting ideas about how to make your characters realistic, three-dimensional and memorable.

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Name

I have a really bad habit of naming my characters with names that mean something. It’s all fine and well for when you want to add something special, J K Rowling did a fabulous job with all the meanings behind her character names, but when you aren’t writing about wizards and werewolves it isn’t always necessary to name the bad girl of the story something like Maelani (which means dark) and the good girl something like Aurelia (which means light). That is, however, what I have done with two of my characters in my novella. The twins are called Dany (which means dark) and Zane (which means light).

Whilst googling name meanings recently I came across a Yahoo question where the most popular answer to someone trying to find the right meaning for their character’s name was: “Just give her a normal name. Parents choose names because they like them, not necessarily because they think their child will grow up to be the meaning of that name.” This is a very good point and actually kinda makes life a little easier. Especially when trying to find names for your bad guy/girl characters, it’s not easy to find names out there that mean things like deceitful, two-faced or cruel.

The reply also suggested the possibility of using a name that means the opposite of the characters personality. Take Angelica from Rugrats, for example. She was always being mean to the babies and rarely ever behaved in an angelic fashion.

I rather like this idea. It offers many story suggestions just by turning the name meanings on their heads. How about a call girl called Chastity? A benefit cheat called Charity? An atheist called Faith? Cliff who is afraid of heights? Lake who can’t swim? Oh, the Irony!

You could always go all Bond Girl or Iron Man with names like Pussy Galore or Pepper Potts: A small joke thrown in to your writing to make it more memorable and to give your readers a small smile.

Maybe your characters all have surnames that depict their job like Cook, Smith and Harper. Then again, Bin-man, Lawyer and Waitress might be slightly unusual…

Of course sometimes you just need to be that little bit wacky. We all know celebs love to name their poor kids unfortunate things like Fifi Trixabelle, Lettuce and Phoenix Chi. It’s not just celebrities though. My friend is a teacher and I happen to know she taught a kid called Awesome and there was a lot of social media attention about that girl who called her kid Hashtag.

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Ethnic names are good if you want to give that well-rounded feel for a character’s ancestry, but names are becoming rather more universal these days so you want to be careful not to stereotype at the same time.

There are some clever ways to use names in all the ways described here and more, but try to not to get stuck in a cycle of doing it all the time. I named a character without looking up the meaning the other day. I nearly went crazy about it and had to talk myself down:

‘Step away from the google page Naomi’

But I did it. It works just as well, and a lot of the time people probably don’t even notice clever naming unless you tell them anyway. I know I don’t look up name meanings for things I read.

 

I’m not even going to mention the characters from the kids TV programme Captain Pugwash…

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6 comments

  1. Haha, great post, Naomi! I agree with the point that names should be on the simpler side. I don’t put a lot of effort into giving my characters fancy names, and I definitely don’t look up their meanings… But that’s just me…
    I think it also depends on one’s genre. Fantasy writers can obviously get away with exotic names better than others.
    Anyway, I am looking forward to more on characters. It’s sort of just what I need. 🙂

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  2. I was just thinking about writing a post about names, and alas, I was glad to see you beat me to it! I am the same way — I look up the meanings of the names I choose. It’s not necessarily the reason I’ll choose a name, but for some reason I like to know.

    Do you have to know the name of your character before writing? I’m like that. It drives me crazy. I can’t just use filler names or something.

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  3. Nice post! Another thing I’ve learned to do is consider the parents. For example: if both parents are- say- marine biologists, they might be more likely to name their child something that relates to water.

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