Naming Characters in Fiction Writing

I am not good at naming characters in fiction writing.

It’s really not surprising. When my son was born, I couldn’t come up with a middle name to save my life. Eventually, his middle name came from an episode of Dragnet the night I was in labor with him. For my daughter, don’t laugh, she literally went an entire week with no name, and my grandmother gave her the middle name.

I don’t do well with names. If I couldn’t even name my own kids, I don’t know how I am supposed to name my characters in fiction writing.

I guess it’s because I think names are very important. I love my name, Michelle, and I kinda like the nickname someone gave me in high school that I use to this day, Michy (pronounced Mickey – or Mich for short… yes, I have a nickname for my nickname apparently). I hated the name my parents called me by though – Shelly. I wonder sometimes just how much a name ‘affects’ a person.

Sometimes, I’ll be writing a character and his or her name just jumps out at me. I just KNOW this is supposed to be their name. Other times, I have to ask friends to do it, and I’ll say no until they throw out one that speaks to me. In my book The Missing File, I had two PERFECT moments when names came to me – one was a character I named Chuck and the other one was a young man, a child about 11 or 12, and I named him Simon. You’d have to read the book to know why Simon is just perfect for him.

Anyway… I look at things such as personality, character traits, habits, where the character was likely to be born, did he come from money or not (yes, rich people sometimes name kids differently), what race is he or she (yes, different races use different names sometimes), and what ethnicity is she – which is different than race. A woman who has a grandmother who was Irish Catholic may have a Gaelic sounding name while a man whose father was an Italian immigrant may have a more ethnic Italian name.

But then again, you can choose to go completely out there on ethnicity and race too, something that doesn’t ‘match’ your character. For example, I met an Asian woman named Julie. Her sister was named Botum. They grew up in America – Julie and Botum – tell me if those names alone don’t add an element of characterization to your story?

Now, I’m not saying when you name your characters in fiction writing, each name has to have some deep personal, psychological meaning, but when you read the name in your writing yourself, you do want to ‘feel’ that the name is right for your character.

Now, most of the time, unless it’s somehow part of the story, it’s probably best to keep the name something simple and easy to pronounce. I did write one story in which EVERYONE in the story consistently mispronounced the character’s name and in part that was part of the story. Short of a situation like that, there’s nothing worse for me as a reader than to be pronouncing a character’s name a certain way and then see the movie based on the book or to hear the author speak or talk to another reader and discover that I’ve been pronouncing it wrongly through the whole book!

Another thing I think is important when naming characters in fiction writing is to avoid using names that might cause confusion. I know a lady whose first name is Tuesday. While I think it’s an absolutely lovely name, when you are writing, can you see how confusing it might be to write, “Is Tuesday meeting us Wednesday or Thursday at the club?”

Yes, I realize you can write it differently, but that’s really not the point, now is it?

Or my friend Mercedes. “Mercedes stepped into the Lexus.”

(shrug)

When I was writing my book, FIRESTORM, I had four ‘elements’ at work – Firestarter, Earthdweller, Windchanger, Waterbearer. I did some research and wanted some cool sounding real names for them – so here’s what I came up with.

Firetarter – Lasair – Lasairiona – (flame)
Windchanger – Guthrie (windy place)
Earthdweller – Adhamh (son of the red earth)

Now, for Waterbearer, I came up with Tipper, which meant water pourer, but the problem is, I just didn’t like that name or ‘feel’ it. So instead of going with a water name for him, he became Davan – which means beloved, since he is Lasair’s beloved, and she, is both the Firestarter and Davan’s flame.

See?

I even made the names for the other bit characters all mean something too, such as Lasair’s horse’s name is Cara, which means ‘friend’, and the shop owner’s name is Connaire, which means landowner.

Anyway, for that book, I made all the names mean something, including the names of locations. As a casual reader, you would likely not realize that the names held a meaning, but for me, it was important to focus on that detail – and you can rest assured someone who reviews my book at some point will realize it.

The extra attention to little details can make a good book great when remembered in time.

“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet…” perhaps, but we don’t give tulips on valentine’s day either. I don’t know, names are important. They are so important that many of us feel slighted when someone who corresponds with us misspells our name. We let those closest to us give us nicknames and terms of endearment while those we don’t know well or do not like are doomed to call us by our full given names.

Yes, I do think names are that important, so I think that they really need to be chosen carefully with your characters. You can do character sketches and then search for ethnic names that have a meaning similar to their personality. You can search the internet for ‘etymology of _____(enter name)’ and learn more about it, or go to a baby name site that has meaning of names and then search for keywords.

My son’s name means noble. My daughter’s name means friendly.

Well, at least I got one of them right.

http://www.behindthename.com/

Here’s a good site to get started.

My name, for those who care, apparently means: “Who is like God.” Interestingly enough, my nickname Ryan calls me all the time in Japanese means Path, and I wrote the book The Path.

So there’s my take on naming characters in fiction writing.

Love and stuff,
Michy

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3 comments to Naming Characters in Fiction Writing

  • Michael  says:

    Hi Michy – I like this post. This is Michieru/Michael from AC; I’ve got an article about this very same thing:
    Naming Fantasy Characters

    AC did something weird and repeated the second paragraph I dunno what.

  • axis  says:

    Fantastic blog! Great!

  • Gordon Vanstone  says:

    An enormous thank you for your commendable piece of writing.Much thanks again. Great.

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