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What’s in a name?

One of my favorite things about writing is making up names for characters.

Fun as that is, I think it’s important to choose those names with care. Aside from the basics, like avoiding reader confusion by not having Tommy, Timmy and Tammy in the same story, a name produces an image in the reader’s head (at least it does in mine).  

My old gran used to say, “You only get one chance to make a first impression, so don’t bugger it up, you pillock!” If we apply that sage advice to our characters, then I’d say we should begin with the name. After all, it’s often the first thing our readers will know about them.

Giving a name like ‘Britney’ to an m/c creates a different first impression than if we called her Anya, or Agnes. From the name alone, our brain fills in details about age, appearance and attitude. 

If we’re reading a story in which the m/c learns he’s about to receive a visit from a someone named Cecil Winthrope III, chances are we’d have a different expectation than if that stranger was called Ed Hunter (who may possibly be about to offer the m/c a job in a rival story… ahem, sorry).

Of course, I realize we need to provide a lot more information about our characters than just their moniker. Nevertheless, I think it’s good to have an idea of what image the name alone creates in our readers’ minds - not least because we can use that expectation to our advantage by turning it on its head. 

In my MG novel, Fur-Face, I have a cat named Snowy; a fox named Razor; and a gorilla named Mr. Tinkles. From the names alone you’ve probably got an idea about their appearance and character (though I’m pretty sure you’d be wrong about Snowy).

Here are some names from my current WIP Waking up Jack Thunder:

Bobby Newton
Winzig (means ‘tiny’ in German)
Jonas Van Der Staal

One of them is a hulking brute of a sadistic killer; one is a mysterious international drug lord; one is a shy scientist, and one a CIA agent

 With just the above information, I’m sure you could correctly pin the job to the name, as it were.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to call their characters. I’m just saying that first impressions very often start with a name, so it’s a good idea to choose them with care.

How about you?

What character names did you choose for your current WIP, and why?  


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( 119 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 3rd, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
i hate comimg up with names. for lesser characters i use a generator, for the main the names just appeared (no idea where from) although i had to change the name of one many many many times. i am just not good at naming. most of my names seem to samey.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
It's one of those 'I'll know it when I see it' things for me. Sometimes it taes five minutes to come up with a good name, other times years :(
(no subject) - the_faery_queen - Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 3rd, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
I love these names! It would be fun to try to match them up. I would, of course match them against type just to be contrary. Bobby Newton would be the sadistic killer. :-)
My favorite name for one of my characters was for a criminal genius teddy bear.
His name... is Dr. Cuddles.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
Dr. Cuddles. Excellent! :)
Feb. 3rd, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
I write fantasy so I have a penchant towards made up names. I think some people who make up fantasy names go overboard with the apostrophes, they make up names that are too long and they seem to like using letters like X or Y a lot. Not my kind of thing.

I like derivatives of names from ancient cultures. I pick celtic names for my characters who come from the cold north where the mountain winds make their long hair dance. I pick egyptian or indian names for my dark-skinned characters. I pay attention to what the name means and make sure it has something to do with the character. The sound is also of importance; names that are hard to pronounce are a bad idea in most cases.

Some names from my current WIP: Estha, Jareth, Sinthaia, Sol, Seeker, Topaz and Count Jandor of Manticore.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:23 pm (UTC)
Nice :)

I think it helps to use foreign or ancient language as inspiration.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
Depends on the genre, firstly. Your story is obviously fantasy, so the names tend to be a bit more colorful. However, if I'm reading a mainstream fiction and everyone's name is Tatiana, Lucian, Drayden etc, I get annoyed.

This is a really good topic, a lot of thought does go into it when choosing character names. For me it's a balance to choose a name that representst the character (though this is not a prerequisite), stands out to the reader as memorable and separate from the other character names, while still maintaining an 'average Joe', 'this could be your buddy' sort of feel so the reader can connect.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
It's one of those 'Never would have thought it was important' aspects about writing, which we (or at least, I) never give much thought to - until a few years ago, when I realized I'd picked up a bad habit of choosing names that ended with an 'ee' sound :(
Feb. 3rd, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC)
The main character in my current story arrived with a first name, which for me is usually a sign the character is going to work for me. I sometimes create characters based on people I don't know but spot somewhere (I understand Agatha Christie did the same thing) and in this case the rather endearingly disheveled guitarist in a band I saw somewhere turned into a character in my head, and I immediately knew his first name was Jordy. I tried a number of surnames on before I picked "MacPherson" as a good Nova Scotian name.

A lot of the time, finding the name for a character involves throwing a bunch of names at him/her and seeing if they stick. I have a couple of names I like a lot that I've never really found a character for--they're not exotic, I just like them and don't want to waste them on characters I won't end up liking. I don't recycle names very often, even if the character's story didn't work out. Which may eventually pose a problem!
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
It's a great feeling when a name just fits, isn't it? :)
(no subject) - coneycat - Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coneycat - Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 3rd, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
I just love your old gran. ;-) I usually go with my gut when it comes to names. Sometimes the name appears first in my head and I try to find who it belongs to. While other times the character appears first and I have to wait until the right name seems to fit them. Right now I'm working with a Grayson,(his name came first) a Laura,(her name came later) a Micah,(his character was built around his name) and an Arial. (She was named on a whim and I wish I could change it now, but this is a second in a series and the first book in the series already print-ready.)
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
Can you shorten Arial to Ari or Ri?
(no subject) - meredith_wood - Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - out_totheblack - Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 3rd, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC)
Names are important and they def do convey information to the reader. Excellent point. :)
Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
Thank you :)
Feb. 3rd, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
Your gran is rapidly becoming one of my favorite people :-)

I have three works in progress, but nothing interesting to say about the names in them, I don't think. --Well, the short story... in that, for some otherworldly people, rather than turn to the fantasy name generator (j/k I would make up my own, promise!) or modify real-world names, I decided to go with phrases, like "Fast-falling-sleet." ... It's the Dances-with-wolves school of name creation!

....But the other works in progress are set in our real world, more or less, and I've just tried to make the names reflect where the people are from and how old they are. As you suggest with your Britney/Anya/Anges example, certain names are appropriate (or in-) for certain eras and ages. When I was naming characters who were active during the French and Indian War, I looked at census data from that era to see what names were common.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I have one in my WIP named Sun on New Fallen Snow, people just call him Snow.
Sun on New Fallen Snow - asakiyume - Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Sun on New Fallen Snow - out_totheblack - Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Sun on New Fallen Snow - out_totheblack - Feb. 3rd, 2010 09:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Sun on New Fallen Snow - asakiyume - Feb. 3rd, 2010 09:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Sun on New Fallen Snow - out_totheblack - Feb. 3rd, 2010 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
All of the names in my fantasy WIP are based on the lands they come from, which in turn are inspired by real cultures in our world.

Connor - is from a sudo-Celtic based country. The books starts off with him in a foreign land, so I wanted a Celtic feeling name to set him apart from the more Latin/Greek inspired names around him.

Ilmarin - is named after the Finnish blackmith god/hero Ilmarinen. This seemingly simple blacksmith character is more than he appears, so naming him after a god felt right. He's a mysterious foreigner who settled in the sudo-Celtic land, so I wanted his name to be very non-Celtic, and non-Latin/Greek, since he's not from the neighboring lands either.

Nashlin - My goddaughter's name is Nashla, a Middle-eastern name since her father is from Lebenon. My character is a young girl (daughter of Ilmarin) who runs away from home to see the world. I wanted her name to be more exotic than the others around her, both in her homeland before she leaves and in the foreign lands she travels.

Alric - even though he is from the sudo-Celtic land, he becomes basically the lone wolf as the story goes along. "Ulric" means powerful wolf in Old German, but didn't "feel" right. "Alric" means noble ruler, which also fit the character initially, and felt right overall. (I had no idea that there was a popular character named Elric in fantasy when I named my character. This is one name that could be changed before the book gets published to avoid comparisons.)
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:06 pm (UTC)
Re: Elric and Ulric

Ouch :(

I know how you feel. I had the same thing with two of my characters, Shylock Humes and Indiana James :(
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
I agree that names are so important. I hate it when people leave names out of short stories in first person as I haven't a clue what the MC looks like without this. I mean, there is a huge chasm between an Mirabella and an Ethel.

I think part of this comes from name fads and when they were popular. I am betting everyone was thinking of an Ethel as an older woman with grey hair and wrinkles. This name has been out of fashion for the longest time and I came across it recently in a genealogy search.

My MC names? Azrial because she is an angel and an assassin in my sci fi and Raven for my fantasy because I wanted something to loosely fit in with First Nation names and also because it is a carnivorous bird and that also has implications.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Ethel

Honestly, my first thought was that she was a pirate's daughter ;)

Azrial sounds like a cool name :)
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:20 pm (UTC)
I'm not going to go into great depth about the derivation, but there is a Greek, as well as a Trek, influence on the names of my characters in my YA SF novel. The three main teens are Kiril Tesurik, Thanike Tesurik, and Kelest Tesurik. Thanike is more commonly known as Niki, and Kelest is known as Skel. Niki is the girl. In my culture, women's names often end with "e", "i", "is" or "ith", while male names typically end with a hard consonant.

I am wondering, Jon, if you did name your characters counter to type? That would be fun!
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:11 pm (UTC)
Once you've got a system that works, it really takes the pressure off, don't you think?

As for naming characters counter to type, I haven't done it for a major character, but I've done it with secondary ones.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
In the novel I wrote last November, I had the MOST fun with names.

There was this assassin-dynasty called Stones, and all the Stoneses got progressively goofier: Unnatural Stones. Abandon Hope Stones. Sacred Datura Stones. Amanita Muscaria Stones.

My protagonist is "Miscellaneous Stones," but people just call her "Lanie." The housekeeper calls her "Miss Lanie."

There is a zombie housekeeper named Goody Graves. An incontinent mastiff named Katabasis. An undead direwolf puppy named "Undies," because it likes to eat underwear. There is more, but why spoil it, really?
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
LOL, totally awesome. I had a pair of twin prostitutes that work a dock area in one story named Flotsam and Jetsam.
(no subject) - csecooney - Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - out_totheblack - Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
I love names and words and I like to use words for names. I have a background character named Devon who was a bard, which is the meaning of that name, and Cahal for a leader because that is what that name means.

In my WIP I have three main groups two of which are non-human. My back-to-nature non-humans have soft names or are named after something in nature. I have a shaman from that group named Namer of Names, called Namer for short. If he gives you a name, it tends to stick. This group is descended from Devon.

My second group of non-humans are not so nice and they have harder sounding names like Wallur and Rodick. They are descended from Cahal's group. The problem I'm having now, is one of my MCs is from this group and has a poofy elf name that someone else gave him - Tularean. I'm just using it as a place holder until something else better comes along. Unfortunately, bogwitch game me a great nick-name, Tuli, which I really like so that makes it harder to get rid of Tularean.

2 points to anyone that can come up with a good name for a suave, snake in the grass, male character and an extra 2 points if you can manage to make it so I can still use Tuli.

The human names depend on where they are from.

In my trying to think of a new name for Tularean, the name Rain came to me. Don't know who Rain is yet or what he does, but I'm sure it'll come to me. :)
Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC)
What's funny, is I don't usually have trouble coming up with names, but I just can't come up with a good name for this guy and I love naming characters.
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - out_totheblack - Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:19 pm (UTC)
'I try to be consistent in sounds and spellings within the various cultures in my writing, but I'm no expert.'

Unless you're writing historical fiction, I don't think we need to be. It's a shame when people get fixated on the minor things in a critique.
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Feb. 3rd, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 3rd, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I love your Gran too, and the word pillock. The MC in my last story was Alphonse Blanc. It was only after I finished that I googled to find out that there was a french painter by this name. Maybe that was in my subconscious somewhere? Alphonse because it rolls off the tongue nice, Blanc because he is a bit of a white canvas in this story.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
Hehe, I used Gran's quote in a recent interview. I wasn't sure if I could say 'pillock' but in the end I kept it (though I changed 'bugger it up' to 'screw it up').

Alphonse Blanc sounds like the name of a snobby restauranteur to me. What does he do?
(no subject) - maryjdal - Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
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