One of the biggest problems facing writers is the initial first step of choosing names for our characters. A writer can lose hours of their life trawling baby name websites searching for the perfect fit. Our names are a large part of our identity and picking the wrong one can be jarring at best and disastrous at worst.
I have always had this problem. In Aurelius, the main character is called Nina. I’ve never cared for the name myself but it comes from the Spanish for ‘girl’ and up until then, I had been writing Girl where her name should have been. Developing a nameless character is extremely difficult though and so Nina became a stand-in until I thought of something better. As it is, she grew into it and has ended up owning it. Aurelius’ name was far easier but I’m not giving you anything on him.
In The Legend of Dreich, it was far easier; Scottish-y names that can be shortened into endearing nicknames. However, there are several questions that I find it helpful to think about when choosing names for characters.
1. Is it a normal name spelled backwards?
This sounds silly, I know. Names like Senga (Agnes) work but I alpha read (or began to read) a fantasy novel where the main character was Dlanor and not only was it difficult to get my mouth round but my left-handed mind could only see Ronald every time I looked at it. Some of us notice these things instantly and it makes us cringe. The clever thing to do would have been to call him Delanor because it has that wannabe-Tolkien feel the writer was going for but it’s also easier to sound out.
One of the first things I do with odd names is read them backwards. It’s instinctive: it doesn’t make sense so it must be the wrong way round. If I notice it, the chances are that your editor will notice and they’re not going to be impressed.
2. Is it pronounceable?
Following on from the previous question, part of the problem with reversed names is that they’re impossible to pronounce. The same goes for fantasy authors who make up names or fill them with apostrophes (think Finfarliel or Dyrg’dyn).
The problem is that in trying to be too imaginative, we run the risk of tripping our readers up. I have read books where I’ve skimmed over the names of places and characters because otherwise it would take me a few tries every single time to get it right. It interrupts the flow of the story and makes me disinclined to read on. Try to be aware of this when you are choosing names. If you can’t say it out loud without stumbling over it, or if you need an appendix detailing the pronunciations, you need to rethink what you’re doing.
3. Would you be comfortable hollering it from the front steps of your house?
This rule works for naming animals too (fun fact). If you could yell your character’s name from your front gate without the neighbours looking at you funny, as if you were calling your children in from playing, then it’s probably a suitable name for a character.
While you are testing names out loud, bear their surname in mind, as well as the names of other characters around them. I had this trouble with a WIP. The main character’s best friend is called Adonijah, which is fine. Until the name of the head guy of the city they lived in was Abiram and the city was Abatiya. Abiram’s name was swapped out for something beginning with a consonant and Adonijah’s nickname is Nye (which also alludes to his birth name but that’s a long story). One way to check for this is to say [character’s name] of [character’s city/country/organisation] and see if it sounds strange.
There are of course two exceptions that I can think of. One is that sometimes you pick a name for its meaning, like Semper Vanitas in Aurelius. He was the personification of his name, as I intended him to be. The other is to be careful of choosing names that you like too much. Titus Nagar worked for the character in Aurelius but as I wrote, I realised that I like the name Titus enough that it would be in the running if I ever had a son. Personally, I’m wary of writing a character with a name I’d consider for a child because I wouldn’t want them to think that they were named after the character or vice versa. This is personal preference though.
4. What does it mean?
As I mentioned before, Nina, a main character in Aurelius means ‘girl’. Semper Vanitas means ‘always vanity’, which works perfectly for the scumbag that he is (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler) but it’s important to be careful of the meaning behind your characters’ names.
The last thing that you want is a hero with a name that means ‘blackest, most filthiest, rottenest, meanest heart that beats to the march of tyranny’. On the other hand, calling your antagonist something like Elaina (bright, shining) may work because it’s so wrong. Playing with name meanings for characters can produce some interesting results and can be a great way to show who’s on what side (or to deceive the readers). It’s worth taking into consideration. The only thing is that it’s best to keep it fairly subtle and not spend too much time down that rabbit hole.
5. Is it genre-appropriate?
There are all sorts of weird and wonderful names out there now. I have a friend who went to school with a girl called La-a (Ladasha if you were wondering how to say it) so the borders of normality are far more flexible than they used to be. But it’s still important to be aware of genre when choosing names for your characters. Frederick might work for a period romance, or shorten nicely to Fred or Freddie for a contemporary story, but if you are writing more of a high fantasy epic saga, you might want to Tolkienify it and call him Fredriel. Going in a different direction, if Fred wanted to participate in a dystopian YA you could always call him Fray, but if he became a modern detective, take the last part of his name and call him Rick.
The way to work out if your name fits the genre is to go into a book shop and flip through some of the books in your niche (and age range if possible) and get a feel for the kind of names that are being used. This is especially important in historical fiction; Elizabeth and Anne might be comfortable roaming around Victorian Edinburgh, but Jayden and Beyonce would stick out like a sore thumb.
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Naming characters is tricky but important. This is who they will become and what they will be known as. Their name is partly what makes them memorable — interesting and fitting enough to be thought of fondly but not so interesting and obscure that it becomes forgettable. It’s something I either agonise over forever or know instinctively, there’s no in between.
However you choose names for your characters and however agonising or easy the process is, these are a few questions to help you choose wisely so that when you become a best seller, you’re not going to wince when people tell you their favourite character.
- What’s the strangest or most difficult name you’ve ever seen in a book?
- How do you decide what to call your characters?