Naming characters is an important, sometimes fun, sometimes tricky part of the fiction-writing process, and is something I alternately love and dread. A name is a symbol that represents someone, both offering identity to those it is attached to, and in turn adopting it from them.
I find that there are generally three ways (or a mix thereof) to come up with and decide upon those monikers:
- Namesakes. One simple way to name a character is to do so (in part or in whole) after someone else – someone you know, someone from history, or even another character from some other work. Such a name will probably already have strong connotations for you, and those might just be appropriate for who you’re writing.
- Meaning. The advantage writers have over parents in the naming department is the foreknowledge of who this person or creature they’re creating will be, and can choose a name that is symbolically fitting (or ironically incongruous). This can be in the form of a name that’s also a word in the operative language (Will, Victor, Dawn, Amber, etc.), a word from another language, or something suitable trolled from babynames.com. (>^-‘)>
- Aesthetics. Often, just focusing on how a name sounds and looks is all you need to do. I tend to lean mostly in this direction, relying heavily on phonetics when working out what to call characters. Sounds used together in specific ways can evoke qualities of roughness, delicacy, power, playfulness, and a number of other feelings to subconsciously color the impression of the named. Spelling should also be a consideration; the visual appeal of different letter arrangements can have the same sort of impact. All of this goes for whether you’re picking a common name or making up a new one (though I could probably do a whole separate post on the latter!).
However you end up choosing your names, there is one thing I always recommend.
The less you’ve decided about a character, the easier it is to settle on a name. At least that’s always been the case for me. Sometimes, the name will even help slightly with further direction!
The more important a character is, the more true this becomes. If you have a strong image of the character in mind by the time you start thinking seriously about what to call them, picking a name that feels right can be a daunting task. It means you have all the more context and nuance to map to that all-important referential symbol. It’ll seem like you have to find a name that already represents all facets of the character, rather than letting the name come to do so naturally as the character develops.
But what about you? Do you agonize over the subtleties of your characters’ names? How do you like to go about choosing them?