Advice, Characters, Fiction, My Books, Novel, Tips, Writing

How do you know your characters’ names?

Today, I’m pondering where character names come from. I recently read a few short stories I’d written—or started to write—a few years ago. In one story, in place of the main character’s name, I’d used GIRL. I could “see” the character, I just couldn’t “hear” her name. I never finished writing that story.

In The Brevity of Roses, the novel I just finished (ahem) writing, I have three major characters. One woman I’ve named Meredith and though I saw her clearly, I had to think for her name. The younger woman I first named Kristen because of the “type” I see when I hear it, but, except for her gender, Kristen was the opposite of the character who is now Renee. I wish I had kept a book diary because now I can’t quite remember the sequence of events that led to such a radical change in my storyline. But when the character changed, so did the name.

My third, and main, character in the novel is of middle-eastern descent. He announced his name. As I’ve said in previous posts, the core idea for this story came from a dream. No one had names in the dream. When I thought about writing a short story based on this dream, I knew I would have to have a scene where the older woman met the man. As I started to craft this scene, I used WOMAN as a name placeholder for her, but when I got to the point where I wrote the line where the man introduces himself, I heard: I am Jalal. There you go. I love the sound of it. I love the way it feels in my mouth. Unfortunately, I’ve found that it’s not so easily pronounced by some people—my sister for one. She now has my permission to simple refer to him as J.

I think it’s important to have the name “fit” the character. Most of us would instantly picture Tony Randall in The Odd Couple if we read the name Felix. And none of us is likely to name a character Oprah, Madonna, or Cher without knowing the image it would evoke—not to mention probable litigation. But we also want to avoid naming a character Kaitlyn if the story takes place during the Civil War. By the way, the U.S. Census bureau has a site to help us find popular character names by decade, year, or even state of birth.

I have a superstition about using the names of family members, or even people I know well, as character names. Obviously, that limits my choices. Sometimes I resort to the open-the-book/magazine/newspaper-and-point method … though I may have to point several times before I find a name that fits. Of course, you’ll never please every reader. To me, Meredith conjures a picture of beauty and refinement, but you might know a foul-mouthed, smelly, terror of a woman with that name. If so, I can only hope you’ll succeed in wiping that image from your mind when you read my novel.

Do you have any methods to share for choosing character names?

24 thoughts on “How do you know your characters’ names?”

  1. Ha. That’s funny what you said about Rick. I just changed Rick to Russ and now I find things like bRuss fireplace or tRuss (for trick).

    I used Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a model for choosing truly appropriate names for outlandish characters. He called his evil teacher Miss Trunchbull. So I named the evil teacher in my book Mr. Brownstain. I may have gotten carried away since mine is not a children’s book.

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  2. Well that got me thinking about things I hadn’t thought about before. When I’m deciding to write a story, (when I have a vague idea of plot) I go though names. I have a book of baby names or I go to the internet or sometimes I just pick a name because I like it. But once the name is chosen, the story develops in ways that it only could with that character. Sometimes their very name will dictate circumstances or characteristics for me. Hmm. I didn’t realize I do that.

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      1. I feel my character first without knowing a great deal in the very beginning and the name really helps add dimension. Once I’m stuck on a name it would be very difficult to change it.

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        1. They do seem to “own” their names, don’t they? I have a short story I wrote a year ago and named one of the characters Ann, but a couple months after I wrote it, I changed her name. A few days ago I reread the story and decided to add a few lines. When I went back to read the whole thing straight through, I realized that in the new part I had reverted to using the name Ann without thinking. She just is Ann to me.

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  3. My characters come to me ready made, usually a composite of people from my present or past – but with many fictional differences. But the names are there already. I just tweak them to make sure I’m not libeling anyone. 🙂

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    1. Mine come to me pretty well fully formed, too, but I don’t always “catch” the name immediately. Once I do, it’s hard to think of them with any other name.

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  4. Hi, Linda. At first I couldn’t figure out how I missed this post (as you saw today on 2kop, I’m definitely interested in the topic). Then I saw the date and realized I was knee deep in bar mitzvah back in Nov.

    My middle grade novel is entirely predicated on my main character’s name. In fact, the entire plot fell into my head when my son noticed that a particular name was buried within a common word. Every name in the story was carefully chosen to become part of the plot.

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    1. You said: “Every name in the story was carefully chosen to become part of the plot.” That’s interesting. Do you mean the definition of the names?

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      1. Mostly, it was the spellings of the names. My main character’s name is Ian, and almost every name in the book has that letter combination embedded in it. The primary antagonist, his teacher, has a name that is reflective of her role and does not include the letters “i-a-n”. I loved creating all the plays on words.

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