My parents chose their children’s names according the meanings. They named me Kathryn in hopes its meaning, “pure,” would bear fruit in my life. (Of course, they also gave me a middle name that means “bitter,” so I’m still trying to figure out the ramifications of that... Pure bitter just doesn’t have quite the same ring, now does it?) They understood, as do most parents, that names are important. Mention a name, and instant preconceptions spring to mind. Although our names may not play a role in shaping our personalities, they certainly become a reflection of our background, our ethnicity, even our faith. They can even define our relationships: I’m only Kathryn in extremely professional situations; to most people I’m Katie; and to a select few I’m Kate.
So it should come as no surprise that naming a character is probably the single most important moment in defining his personality and the role he will play in a story. Names can prove both a tremendous stumbling block and a huge inspiration. For a long while, the hero of my soon-to-be-completed fantasy Dreamers Come was named Chris Foster. And for a long while, he refused to cooperate. He shuffled around, mumbled excuses, and was generally ineffective and callow. I changed his name to Chris Redston, and strange and wonderful things started happening. Suddenly, I had an aggressive, swashbuckling hero on my hands. And all because of a simple name change.
I defy any parent to produce a more battered and dog-eared collection of name books than those I possess. (Unless, of course you’re a parent and an author.) I’ve spent many an hour thumbing through my collection of name books, skimming Internet name sites, and even blearing my eyes over the telephone book. I drive everyone around me crazy with my demands of “Help me think of a name.” I read movie credits religiously, and I keep lists upon lists of names that struck my fancy at one time or another. A character without a name—or, worse, a character with the wrong name—rankles in my brain like a mosquito bite I’ve sworn not to itch. As Mary O’Hara puts it in her The Making of a Novel:
I work at their names awake and asleep, driving, resting, eating, visiting. For days or weeks I would struggle with one single character rightly to name him, actually a sort of mad seizure, shaking him by the throat—“Tell me! Tell me! What is your name? Your real name?” ... For me, at least, the naming—right naming—is part of the very structure of the character. With the wrong name, the character looks wrong, talks wrong, does the wrong things.
I wish very much I had a magic equation to give you, to help you instantly find the perfect name for every character every time. I wish very much I had such a magic equation to give myself (and I’ve no doubt my family and friends would second that wish). But, in lieu of that, I’ll offer a handful of the pointers I’ve always found helpful.
Avoid names that begin with the same letter. It’s always been my policy (although admittedly not always strictly observed) to never use two names starting with the same letter in the same story. After being introduced to a character, most readers will stop reading his name and simply recognize the character by the shape of his name as their eyes skim over the page. If two characters share names that begin with the same letter—and particularly if the names are similar in size and shape—readers can very easily misread and confuse them. For example, in Dreamers Come, I had originally named one of my characters Choc. But when even I started confusing his name with my hero Chris’s, I knew I had to change it.
Choose realistic names. It’s easy to get carried away with the naming game. Remember Anne Shirley and her penchant for outlandishly romantic names? Cordelia? Geraldine? Roselia De Vere? These names may have fit very well within Anne’s romantic fantasies, but they would hardly have worked so well had L.M. Montgomery chosen to scatter them among her own characters.
Granted, some characters and some stories demand extraordinary names (can you imagine A Christmas Carol with a hero named Eric Schmidt?). But for the most part, it’s much better to stray on the safer side and choose sensible, hard-working names. If you find yourself with a cast of characters who mostly bear names that you've yet to run across in your own personal experience, you’d probably be wise to hunker down and submit to inserting at least a couple Johns and Marys into the mix.
Choose historically/geographically accurate names. In the same vein, it’s also vital to seek out historically and geographically appropriate names. Because it’s highly unlikely that a MacKensie Diaz would have been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I, the author of said MacKensie Diaz would be wise to change the name to something more fitting, lest she shove her readers right out of their bubble of suspended disbelief.
One of my characters in A Man Called Outlaw insisted her name was Aleis, but because I knew the name worked in neither the historical setting nor the geographical setting, I forced her into accepting Anna as a fair exchange.
Establish gender with neutral names. If you’ve chosen a gender-neutral name, such as Tracy or Drew or any other within the host of recent crossover names, be sure to immediately establish the character’s gender. Don’t open your story with a woman named Kelly, only to reveal two paragraphs down that this Kelly person is actually a man.
Don’t be afraid of changing names when necessary. I very rarely nail my characters’ names on the first attempt. In optimal situations, I have their names hammered down by the time I start the first draft, thus ensuring that the names mesh perfectly with their personalities. But, despite my care, I inevitably find myself with at least one (six in my current project) character submitting an application for a name change. This can be a bit frustrating, not to mention perilous, when it occurs in the middle of the story. After all, the demand for a name change often signifies the necessity of some major overhauls in the character’s general portrayal. But it’s always worth the headache of dragging out the name books for one more go. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a character with the wrong name causes one heck of a stink.
Name resources. Even though I’ve mentioned my naming resources in several recent posts, I’m going to go ahead and post them here.
The Greatest Baby Name Book Ever by Carol McD. Wallace—My comprehensive and entertaining stand-by.
Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon—Organizes names alphabetically, by origin, and by popularity according to year.
Popular Baby Names—The Social Security Administration’s records of baby names.
Behind the Name—Provides and the history and etymology of first names. Allows searches by meaning and includes a handy generator.
Victorian Era Names, A Writer’s Guide—Names from the turn of the century.
Fantasy Name Generator—Set the specifications to your needs and generate dozens of names at a time.
The Elvish Name Generator—Discover your personal elvish (or hobbit) name.
Sean Puckett—Random Word Generator—According to the site: “...if you want to generate some new girl’s names, feed it a list of girl’s names, and it will take them apart and discover how to make girl’s names, then come up with a list of words that are very similar, but probably never before seen.”
Story by K.M. Weiland