Choosing the right name for the characters you create in your fiction is ultimately a matter of knowing what feels right – you'll know when you've hit upon the best match.
- Would Scrooge have become such a symbol of parsimony if Dickens had name him Smith?
- Would Paddington Bear sound as adorable if named after Waterloo Station?
- Would the Wizard of Oz be as awesome if he lived in any lesser-named land?
“For me, the name has always come before the character,” says Dan Holloway, novelist, poet and ALLi's News Editor. “I will often find the narrative taking a direction driven by the personality the character's name dictates. I find names tend to be a very auditory thing – they need to sound right and that sound will suggest a context for them. Agatha Christie was exceptionally good at naming characters in this way, and it's one of those things that when an author doesn't quite get it right can make a book really grate, but when they do get it right can make it really flow.”
Checklist of Ideas for Choosing Character Names
Because arriving at the solution for YOUR characters isn't always easy, we've devised this a handy checklist of ideas to help you:
- Allow pure instinct to take over, letting your subconscious to tell you what your characters want to be called, as if they've chosen their own names.
- Use the ethnic background of the character to search online for names that are for the background, eg www.behindthename.com, www.fantasynamegenerators.com, www.20000-names.com
- Summon up Scrivener's name generator, which includes the option to list them by nationalities.
- Google possible names to see how they work in different contexts (also to guard against offending real people, e.g. you don't want your sweet romantic heroine to share a moniker with a serial killer)
- Browse detailed maps appropriate to the character, and borrow place names – so many people were historically named after the place they came from, so such surnames sound realistic
- Repurpose names of people you've known in real life, but with first names and last names in different combinations from the originals
- Look up lists of names popular in the year your character would have been born – that way they'll always be appropriate
- Make a note of any appealing names you come across in daily life and store them up for appropriate characters later on
- Recycle your friends and relations (with their permission)
- Name a character after a superfan as a reward for their loyalty
- Run a competition on your author website whereby the winner's name is applied to a character (mind how you choose the character, though!) – a great way to promote your work-in-progress prior to publication, too
- Scour telephone directories – yes, they can still be useful, even in these days of online searches
- Collect paint cards from DIY stores – the various shades are often imaginatively named
- Browse make-up counters to draw inspiration from the colours of nail polish, eyeshadow, and even perfumes
- Read the inscriptions on memorials such as gravestones and commemorative plaques (they may also suggest whole new story ideas)
Larger than Life?
But remember, no matter how hard we try to come up with suitable names, we'll always come across others that make us and think to ourselves “If that was in a novel, no-one would believe it”. Mr Seymour the optician, Mr Payne the dentist, Mr Justice the judge. You really couldn't make it up…
With thanks to ALLi authors who contributed to the recent discussion on our members-only Facebook forum that inspired this post. That forum is one of many great reasons to become a paid member of ALLi, by the way -for more information about the many benefits of ALLi membership, click visit www.allianceindependentauthors.org.
OVER TO YOU
- What's your favourite character's name? – and if it's one you've created, how did you come up with it? We'd love to hear your case studies! (My own is my domineering vicar, the Reverend Neep, in my cozy mystery novel Trick or Murder? – his name just came to me out of the blue. I'm wondering whether I have ever met a real Mr Neep and found him so awful that I've suppressed his memory but clung on to his name as a symbol of evil?)
- Feel free to add other resources to our checklist – all ideas welcome!
OTHER GREAT WRITING ADVICE
From the ALLi Author Advice Center Archive