How to Name Your Characters (Without Getting Obsessed)
It's easy to get lost in lists of baby names.
Character names aren’t the most important part of a story, but it’s certainly hard to write a book without them. So you need to have at least a few names picked out when you start, otherwise you’ll have a very confusing manuscript full of “___”s and “Place Holder”s. But how do you prevent yourself from getting obsessed with picking the perfect name?
Having published a few books and short stories myself, I have a few strategies I can recommend for this situation.
What time period is your story set in? Are any of the characters from a country other than your own? Are they of a particular religious affiliation? All of these factors and more can be important considerations when picking out a name, and usually require a bit of research to make sure you’re on the right track. After all, an 18th century German peasant woman probably wouldn’t be named Navaeh, but an early 2000s American girl might be.
Baby name sites can be especially useful here. Scrolling through names with specific criteria selected (like feminine German names, for example) can help you find a good match.
Classical or Symbolic Names
Research can come in handy here, too, but in a different way. Rather than looking specifically to your story’s setting for name inspiration, you can draw from a variety of sources – historical figures, classical literature, mythology, etc. There are lots of reasons you might pick names this way – maybe you’re really into Greek mythology, maybe you like fitting obscure literary Easter Eggs into your work – and choosing one name from a specific source could be a good jumping off point for other names.
For example, in a short story I’ve been working on, I knew I wanted all the characters’ names to be related to space, stars, and constellations. So I looked up themed lists of baby name suggestions, and a few minutes later, I had unique and thematic names for all my characters.
Of course, if you want to use a classical or symbolic name for one character, you don’t have to follow that theme for all of them. In She Who Rises, I chose the name Amber for my main character as a play on how central precious and semi-precious stones are to the plot and magic system, without being too on the nose by naming her something like Ruby or Garnet. And in the sequel, Those Who Fall, I introduce another character named Eden. Their magic is rooted in plant life, so their name is a reference to the Garden of Eden. So both of them have names symbolic of their characters, but of completely different origins – and no other characters play on those themes, either.
This one you might need to be more careful of. Especially if the character is also based on this person, rather than just borrowing their name and otherwise being unrelated. The more of the person’s name you borrow (and the more distinct their name is), the more cautious you need to be.
Generally, it’s a good idea to talk to that person first and make sure they’re okay with it, which is easy enough if it’s someone you know and you’ve portrayed them fairly positively. If it’s a negative portrayal…
Well, maybe don’t use their actual name. Just pick something that starts with the same later or has a similar sound. So Zoe might become Chloe, or Edward might become Ethan.
Names You Like the Sound of
Sometimes you just really like the sound of a certain name. Unless it’s truly, wildly out of place in your story (see my earlier Navaeh example), then go for it. There’s no reason to overthink it. Again: Your characters’ names aren’t the most important part of the story, and if the story itself is well-executed, most people aren’t going to be too bothered about the names.
Remember: This Isn’t Permanent
As long as you’re still drafting and not getting ready to hand in the final product for publication, your characters’ names are flexible. They can be changed as many times and as dramatically as you want. Just make sure, when all is said and done, that each name is the same the whole way through. After all, it’d be pretty weird for readers if Jennifer becomes Isadora on page 243.
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