That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Sc iiShakespeare
I love names. Whenever I’m writing something, short story, novel, poem, it doesn’t really matter what it is, if there’s a character, then his name can take an age for me to settle on… unless he arrives fully formed and introduces himself to me. It happens.
During my classes, some of my students have told me this is something they struggle with. All their characters are named John or Joe or Mary or Jane. Or, for some, their names are uniformly things like Lucretia, Constantine, Stephanos, or Alexandria. In other words, they’re all ordinary, or all exotic.
A problem with names often suggests a deeper issue: the writer’s poor connection with her character. But the two things go together. Sometimes, finding the exactly right name can help you figure out who the character is, just as a deep understanding of the character can suggest the exactly right name. But let’s say you have a character, or the beginnings of one, and you just have no clue, not one, what to call him or her. Here are some ideas for narrowing it down:
As a generic starting point, baby books are good for flicking through. Most authors have a copy, or a website that they like to use for inspiration. Sometimes they even work. The only problem, though, is that you need to have some clue what you’re looking for. Maybe you know your character’s initials, or whether their name should be Grecian, Celtic, folksy. However, if you’re really starting from nowhere a baby book has limited uses.
Place and Time:
If you are writing an historical novel, you need to be sure the names you use are time-appropriate. When I was writing the Lady Beatrice books, I knew I needed to stick to names that were popular during the Victorian period. Thanks to a youth spent watching Upstairs Downstairs, I knew there tended to be a fondness for flower names for girls–Rose, Daisy, Lily, and so on, especially for the lower classes, with more formal names for upper-class women, such as Hortense, Florence, and, yes, Beatrice. Boys names were Edward, James, Robert, and the biblical, such as Peter, Jacob, Andrew, etc. Reading up on names of the period is a good place to start if you’re writing an historical piece.
Likewise, if your characters are British, especially during the 19th century, you need to give them British names. You’re not going to find a Butch Cassidy, not even by his real name of Robert Leroy Parker, on the streets of 1890’s London, unless they’re visiting from the US, but Leroys were fairly common Stateside. Butch, Burt, Chuck–these are seldom, if ever, found in the UK, even today. Then again, Horatio, Giles, and Algernon are not likely to be found in the US. Characters from China should have Chinese, not Japanese, names. Kenyan names are not the same as Nigerian. If you’re not sure of the difference, you should find out.
If you are writing about members of a particular New York street gang you should learn what the specifics of that gang’s name are like. Don’t assume that every gang is the same. They each have their own cultural identity. Likewise, if you’re writing about Ireland, know the difference between Ireland, the Republic, and Northern Ireland, and the sort of names you’ll find in both. Know what the culture means to your character. Do they love it? Will they embrace it? Or do they loathe it? Note, in Ireland, the trend recently has been for parents to give children old Irish names with traditional Gaelic spelling, Maebh, instead of Maeve, for instance. How a name is spelled can tell you a lot about a person, or a character. Socio-economic levels, education, background. What do they reveal about your hero or heroine?
If religion is important to your character, or, more accurately, to his or her parents, a religious name would be appropriate. Catholic names like Mary, Marie, Maura or some other variation, depending on the country the character is from, will work, though they are a bit lacking in imagination. How about a martyr’s name like Stephen or Sebastian? What does that tell you about your character?
Finding a name that has a meaning specific to some characteristic your character possesses, perhaps secretly, would be more subtle. A Jewish character might be happy to be called Isaac. If he is devout, he might use the Hebrew equivalent, Yitzhak. Then again, if he’s rejecting his heritage, he might use a nickname, Izzy, or something completely different. How does your character feel about his roots?
What Does it Mean?
Names with hidden meanings can be revealing of secret characteristics. These can tell you a lot about your character that you didn’t know, and be a clue or a surprise to readers who go digging for information. Mairin means ‘bitterly wanted child’, according to the Unique Irish Baby Names’ site. Kyna means ‘wise’. Oran is ‘sorrowful’. It’s not just fantasy writers who can use names with meanings, you know. You can, too.
Great character names are memorable. Sherlock Holmes. Heathcliff. Lord Peter Wimsey. You can see them, can’t you? Or what about Miss Jane Marple? Emma Woodhouse? Pussy Galore? What about names that tell you something about the character? Think about Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s favourite vampire, Spike. Gone With the Wind‘s vivid heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. One of the nastiest little girls in children’s literature, Veruca Salt. Holly Golightly. Humbert Humbert.
Now and then, go against expectations. Who’d expect a tough vampire slayer to be called Buffy? Or a vampire to be called Angel? (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Or a princess called Buttercup? (The Princess Bride). Be careful though, as Westley says when he’s explaining how he became the Dread Pirate Roberts, it’s the name that matters. “No one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley.” He has a point.
Keep a section of your journal for names that you happen upon. You’ll find them in shop windows, doctor’s offices, in casual conversation, and in all sorts of places. Just be careful about using them. I once used a fairly common name for a perfectly sweet character and had someone who happened to have the same last name have hysterics and accuse me of insulting her and threaten me with all sorts of nuttiness.
Good stories can be spoiled by the poorly-chosen character name. But good stories can be made great by exceptional character names.