Posted by: writerjames | November 6, 2009

Creating Character Names

Names are important for a writer, because they are the first impression a character makes with the reader.  Strong names can leave a good impression, and make the character more memorable right from the start.  They can create an image of a person all by themselves.

Early on, I found myself falling into the trap of boring names.  I kept ending up with characters like Mike Baker and Mary Brown.  Not very memorable.  So I started by looking at what makes a strong character name.

Andy Dufresne from the Shawshank Redemption.  Robert Langdon from the DaVinci Code.  Andy and Robert are pretty basic first names, but it’s the way they’re used that makes them more effective.  Andy was more fitting for that character than Andrew.  Robert was more fitting than Bob.

The last name can be a great place to make the name unique and memorable.  Using an uncommon name, unique spelling, or a name with a foreign origin can give it that pop you’re looking for.

Even in genres, where names are more unique than the real world, the name can go a long way to creating the character.  Frodo Baggins.  Zaphod Beeblebrox.  If you’re writing this kind of story, the gloves are off.  Have some fun.  Make it truly memorable.

I invested in a couple of second-hand baby name books, and that has helped.  One of them, Cool Names for Babies, has a lot of different and unique names, which is very useful.  It’s filled with names like Dakota and Leon, Rafferty and Indigo.  Cool names.  It’s easy, though, to go too far when populating your story with these characters.  They’re cool and all, but it’s important to realize that the world is also filled with Mikes and Marys.  Sprinkle evenly for maximum effectiveness.

For last names, I still find myself looking in a lot of different places for ideas.  I try things like phone books, yearbooks, CD covers, and the internet.  Websites are filled with government legals, family trees, stuff like that.

In my current story, a lot of characters have Mexican names, so I’ve used the internet more than anything else.  I also like to use nicknames.  One character in my story is called Little Paul, which fits him very well.  Another, an older Mexican-Apache man, is called Tio, which is Spanish for uncle.

Naming characters can be a struggle.  I think I’ve probably had to work harder to name some of my fictional characters than my wife and I have to name my real daughters.  Crazy, but true.  If you have naming ideas, references that you use, or tips or tricks, let me know.  It’s something I still struggle with, and I’m sure I’m probably not alone.

James

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Responses

  1. Good blog! Names ARE important. When I’m writing, I usually try to think of the personality of the character (such as, is this person strong, weak, etc…) and look up names that correspond with the meaning. In Stephen King’s book, Christine, his choice for the mother of Arnie, Regina, was perfect because Regina means, queen or like a queen. And that’s exactly what she was! (I know about the meaning of Regina since it’s also my name!) Just a thought…

  2. Good idea, Gina. And there are several websites where you can look up names based on meaning. I might have to try that.

  3. Zaphod Beeblebrox! I am amused to see you used telephone books and cd covers too.

    It works both ways of course. I’m named after a character from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

    Have you ever had a character insist on changing his/her name a a few times?

  4. I grok what you’re saying, Jillian. I’ve had a main character in my story change his name twice, and I’m still not sure I’ve found his name yet. I’ve gotten good at using the “find and replace” feature on Microsoft Word.

  5. Hi James,

    Good discussion on naming characters in fiction. I like your creativity in finding resources i.e. baby names or phonebooks. Since I am writing a memoir, the challenge becomes ,do I rename key characters to protect their privacy? If so, I will keep your tips in mind! Thanks.


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