Character names can become iconic in their own right. Think of Harry Potter, Frodo, Ebenezer Scrooge and Huckleberry Finn. Could any other name have worked the same way in these stories? Possibly, but you might have a job to convince us as these names just seem so perfect. They convey so much personality that they seem inseparable to the plot we know forms the basis of these stories.
The choice of names is important, and some thought should go into their selection. While you could scour a baby book, draw inspiration from everyday life and friends and family, there are some other considerations.
Names should make sense within the context of your story, fit the genre and time period you are writing about, be appropriate to the character’s actual role, and be unique and memorable. Let’s take a deep dive.
Importance of character names
Character names are important. They can assign a character personality through an odd or foreign name, make a person unique in the narrative with something unusual or quite common and lowly with the opposite, and be essential to the believability of the plot. For example, Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, Yoda, Chewy and Darth Vader are excellent names for a sci-fi. They might not be such a good fit for a western or romance story, though.
Tips to name your characters
Here are some ideas for ways to choose your character’s names.
Determine their race and ethnicity: If you have a character with a particular ethnic identity, you will need to choose an appropriate name. Consider also that readers may assign identities to a character based on that name, so you might not use Yen or Lee for a Scottish character, unless, of course, they have Chinese ethnicity. Whereas McDonald or Campbell would fit perfectly as a surname.
Interests and personality: Names can be chosen to reflect a person’s key traits. So, a girl that’s a bit of a tomboy might work well with a name like Toby, whereas a very pretty girl might go better with Bella or Lily.
Name meanings: Many names carry a meaning that you can look up online or in a baby book. You may be able to use some of these that fit with the character’s personality, even if it’s very subtle for readers. You could also use the Latin or Greek origin for names, or other nationalities like Welsh or Spanish.
Famous names: Always be careful when using a name that also belongs to a well-known person. This may give the name a particular overtone that you may or may not intend. Elvis, Madonna, Adolf and Cher are just famous personalities whose name use you may wish to avoid, unless it makes for a good joke or theme in the story.
Consider a nickname: A nickname can be a useful tool in a story, particularly if only certain characters use it for that person, or in certain circumstances. Or perhaps the nickname is always used and only their full name in formal settings. Nicknames can also make a character seem more endearing and personal.
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Don’t use similar names: Make sure all your main characters have quite different sounding names. Sally and Sam wouldn’t be a good combination, or Jane and Janet, or even names with a similar sound like Jack and George.
Sounds matter: Names with repetitious sounds or consonants can really jump off the page. Think of Severus Snape, Bilbo Baggins or Humbert Humbert make you think of. The first is severe, the second a bit bumbly, and perhaps the last of a professor?
The length of the name: The length of a name like Pip (Great Expectations, Charles Dickens) or Sam (The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien) may tell you a lot about them, being peppy and to the point, just as a very long name like Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie) may tell you plenty as well with a title and a long, drawn out name.
What, where and when: These are important questions that will help you choose names that are appropriate to your story. This includes questions like, what is the genre, where does it take place, and when does it happen?
Test it: If you think you’ve found a good name, test it out. Use it in the plot, read it aloud, try it on family and friends. Does it fit your characterisation? Does it roll off the tongue? Can you live with it if you name your protagonist this way?
There are many wonderful names in literature from Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris) to Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl), Yuri Zhivago (Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak), Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle), and Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell).
Let’s take a look at a couple of these.
James Gatz and Jay Gatsby
Jay Gatsby, the iconic character from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, was born James Gatz. While technically the same person, one name oozes charisma, wealth and mystique, and the other the ordinary circumstances into which he was born. Both characters have very different trajectories. They have the same dream of attaining wealthy, but it is Gatsby for whom that becomes a reality and he changes his name to sound more aristocratic. In this way, the choice or movement between the character’s names signifies this shift.
Charles Dickens’ stories brim with fantastic names and Scrooge, the main protagonist of his A Christmas Carol, is one of these. The cold-hearted miser despises Christmas and is presented with three spirits that form part of his redemption. To this day, the word scrooge is used in English to convey someone who is greedy and generally despises others.
Washington Irving’s fictional character of Ichabod Crane, from his short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is such a fantastic sounding name, and yet it rolls off the tongue. In the story, he’s rather goofy in appearance but with rather gentleman-like manners and tastes, with strong beliefs in the supernatural. It seems to fit the name perfectly, although it is supposed Irving took the name from a military officer of the same name.
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