To paraphrase Shakespeare, does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Purveyors of fine prose would say no, and most novelists take immense satisfaction from naming their characters. Maybe it feels a bit god-like or like picking your friends—after all, you are going to be spending a lot of time with Humbert, Hannibal, Veruca and Mr. Dimmesdale.
Names not only play a big part in building a fictional character—is their name a thematic comment of some sort?—but a name also informs how that character will fit into and operate within the fictional world being created. Being artisans, writers should choose their literary tools with care.
Here are a few things to consider along the way. Some will not be applicable to science fiction or fantasy writers.
When were they born?
When does your story take place, and how old is your character? If it’s set in the present, and your male character is 55 years old and grew up in Wisconsin, checking out which names were popular in 1964 (2019 minus 55) is easy at the website for the Social Security Administration. This is a fun site to explore for American characters, and it breaks down the popularity of names by using different criteria.
In 1962 in Wisconsin, among male baby names, Michael leads the pack at #1. If your character is a straight-A Rhodes scholar/senator-to-be, maybe a strong unquestionably popular name makes sense. But just using the most popular names for any year may not be creative enough.
When looking at the list, #30 might work better for your story, and you choose Randy. By selecting another name from lower down on the list, you may be establishing a different tone. If your character is a slightly out-of-step introvert, peruse the Social Security list for names that hint at that. Or do they go by their middle name? Then there’s an opportunity to mine these lists for two names.
You want to avoid giving a character born in a certain era a name that is obviously trendy and identified with some other specific era—Brittany comes to mind.
What’s their background?
Ethnicity or class may be initially suggested to a reader by merely a character’s name. In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, we learn quite a bit from the names of the unlikely friends Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal.
A character’s upbringing may also influence their naming. Raised just a few miles from each other, Billy Bathgate from the Bronx sounds different than Alice Grenville from Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Perhaps the main character Jane comes from a family whose parents insisted on naming each of their kids names with the letter J. Or her mother loved Jane Austen’s novels and named her kids accordingly.
The writer Jonathan Kellerman is excellent at finding textured and interesting names for his characters, and particularly exercises these skills in the names of secondary and tertiary characters, adding a strong air of color and realism to his novels.
What does it mean?
Every part of a novel is a piece of the overall narrative, creating one single and integrated work. For this reason, you may want to dig deeper and look more closely at the meaning of particular names. That Zoe means “life” in Greek could make it an ideal name for a spritely heroine. The name Cameron, meaning “crooked,” might provide a clue to duplicitous behavior.
Baby name books and websites are excellent writer resources. They often feature a name’s historical significance, its meaning in several languages, or derivations of the same name. For instance, it’s surprising to see all the names that supposedly derive from Anne or Elizabeth.
Think hard before choosing character names that are overly identified with someone famous or infamous. These names may have acquired a new cultural meaning. There are few Adolfs in books these days. Unless selected with clear intent, names like Rihanna or Ivanka should be avoided for your original character.
How does it sound spoken aloud?
In Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, the name Kya is lovely and exotic and means “diamond in the sky.” It’s also easy to say.
I advise authors to read their prose aloud to gauge its rhythm and authenticity. Same with their characters’ names; avoid any possible confusion on their pronunciation.
Also, when writing an international thriller, writers are urged to avoid tongue-twisting names that make their book sound more like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment than Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. In the latter, Smith manages to keep readers feeling immersed in Russian culture while keeping the Russian names relatively simple for non-Russians (Levin, Lyudin, Iomskoy—as opposed to Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov). Also, the protagonist’s first name is used throughout, and we become quite comfortable with Arkady.
Don’t repeat names in a book and avoid sound-alikes
Don’t have two Johns, but also don’t have Johnny and Joanie and Jeannie in one story. “Too many M-names!” I recall one writer exclaiming in frustration while searching for just the ideal character name. Back to the drawing board (or Social Security site).
One of a kind
Perhaps a character feels unique or is even a notable eccentric. And maybe popular names of the era are unsuited for such a personage. This might be the right time to choose an unusual name or one that seems to hail from a previous time. A character’s quirkiness might even be highlighted by using their name in the book’s title. The titles Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes and Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King are examples.
An uncommon name may stand out as much as the bold character.
Few readers of Joseph Heller’s satiric antiwar novel Catch-22 will forget Major Major Major Major, who has no friends in part because of his oddball name. (The character’s last name is Major; as a joke, his father gave him a first and middle name of Major; and then he becomes an officer with the rank of major.) Another example: the unusual name Huckleberry is wonderfully well-suited to Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
Your prose and story will feel different as you switch out names. After using the Find/Replace function and making changes, re-reading your own story with altered names can be an eye-opening experience, adding inspiration and wind in your sails. Give it a try—if only as an experiment.
Have you puzzled over character names, and how did you finally choose? Share how you came to a decision on Facebook.