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. I tend to start with the name and once I have that the character kind of forms. Sometimes I have a rough outline for a character and simply flick through name dictionaries until I look at one and think, that’s their name. Occasionally I don’t have a name for a character and I throw something random in and usually change it through every rewrite until finally something sticks. Names are important though because if a character has a name that just doesn’t work it puts me off reading sometimes. Thanks for sharing this post.

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  2. Sometimes I start with a name, then get a character from it and go from there. Sometimes I start with characteristics, look them up in Latin, then pick a name inspired by that Latin word. I have a little legalist named Lexie; likewise, Lucas is the bringer of light. Another of my characters got her name because I was staring at a wall of Starbucks coffee, and one of the coffee names jumped out at me.

    Names are usually pretty easy for me – when I was little, I wanted to write books just so I’d have an excuse to use all the names I liked! hehe

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    1. Wow, two of you starting with the name! This has never happened to me. Now, I’ll be wondering why??????

      I did spend a good bit of time in a Persian name dictionary choosing names for Jalal’s family members, but oddly, I’ve never thought to look up the meanings of names for my American characters. Hmmm, now I have to wonder about that too! 🙂

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  3. I actually don’t have a method for doing this, and I really need to develop one. The name of a character can be critical to how the reader accepts and embraces them. It’s interesting to think about the psychology of names and how they reflect something in the person hearing/reading it, and I have to become more adept at this.

    My wife scours name sites (like baby name sites, for instance), and has pointed me to the U.S. Census Bureau’s site too. I’ve even hauled out a phone book or two in my day. But those are mostly local names. Gotta be careful with those.

    *Sigh* I hope I learn this writer thing pretty soon. I’d really like to try it someday.

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  4. I once read an article about how Charles Dickens chose the name David Copperfield. I suppose I was about 19. It seemed to me such a creative process that I thought there was no way I could ever become a writer. I’m not very good at things like that. When I write a novel I nearly always base the characters on people I know and I use their real names because it saves me having to write lots of notes to remind myself who the characters are, what they look like and how they behave. Later I change all the names with search/replace. Finding substitute names can be very tricky because most of the people I know have some sort of foreign ancestry and their name is a big clue to their cultural heritage. I went to Estonia and Finland to research my current novel. While I was there I wrote down a lot of the names I found in the newspaper. I wanted to use these for the supporting characters. It’s not as easy as it sounds because it’s not always clear if the name is male or female. (Malaysian names can be even trickier if you don’t know the language.) So then I asked my friend, who is Estonian, to give me some names. The ones she told me were very boring. The interesting thing was her best friend doesn’t have an Estonian name at all. She is named after a character in a picture book. And my friend’s name, which conjures up cascading golden hair, and is perfect for her, is not Estonian either. In fact it’s not even her real name. She changed her name to cover her tracks and disguise her nationality when she left Estonia. So finding a substitute for that took me months. Well, all the names were difficult to find. That’s why I like to do it after the first draft is done because it can just drain all your energy and stop you from getting on and writing the story.

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    1. Joseph, you teach me something everytime you drop by.

      I don’t think we can help using the characteristics of people we know. Though I usually mix and match, so it’s more a “type” than any actual person. You have certainly gone to great lengths to make your name choices authentic.

      And I’ve done the name change with find and replace, but once I forgot to check Whole Word Only and Match Case, so when I replaced the name Ben with Rick, I also ended up with strange words like Rickefit (benefit) and Rickt (bent). 🙂

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  5. Boy, naming characters is hard. In my brief experience writing fiction, some characters’ names just came to me. Once I looked up the meaning of a name to make sure it fit the character’s personality (or story). Other times, I picked names on my own accord and didn’t like them one bit.

    A while back, one writer gave me feedback on a story I’d written and told me the names I picked threw her off. She warned me to choose names carefully, since the name of a character can make or break a story (how’s that for pressure?).

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    1. Pressure, yeah. But make or break would be subjective wouldn’t it? I think the best you can do it choose names that you like and are appropriate for the age, ethnicity, and social class of the character and hope most people agree.

      There are other things to consider, of course, like not having too many characters with similar or unusual names … unless you write Sci-Fi or Fantasy. What are some others?

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