Setting out to find and name characters for your story can be like traveling on a bus and watching other passengers climb on board: They come with a coat or sweater, a light purse or luggage, heavy boots or flip-flops. Some chatter loudly, others are stone silent, and you have to listen for what’s in their hearts. If you’re lucky, they’ve got their ID on them and save you the trouble of finding a name. But more often, you’re left with the challenge. Let’s look at how you might approach it.
Finding and choosing and changing your mind
The go-to search method now is probably the internet. In the olden days, it worked to ask people to pick up name books when they were traveling to other countries. I ended up with a collection I still use. Sometimes on slow idea days I’ll browse, and a name alone will conjure a character, often with a story tucked under an arm; names are that powerful.
Keep a file to collect names that speak to you or incite curiosity. If you are a novel writer, you work with a main character name for a long time; you want a name that grows on you in the ways you need for it to grow. It is not unlike naming a child; will this name still fit them as time passes? The difference, though, is that as a parent, we expect to always love our children, but authors know we won’t always love our characters – and that can put less pressure on your decision-making. When you choose the name that best fits not only the character but also the way you need to approach the work, you create a dynamic from which to pull character knowledge and story material.
Ascertain the meaning of the chosen name: Remember, while you want it to be meaningful, you don’t want it to be too on point. Some names – Frank, Angela, Clay – might be a little too close if you have an outspoken character, or an angelic one, or one who’s malleable. Always consider why you are choosing a name as well as what it will evoke. Another option is so-called misfit names – ones that are the opposite of being on point, such as having a brash, bold character with a delicate, soft name. What might this source of contradiction add to your work?
Granted, you have no way of knowing what associations your readers will have with the names in your story. You may not even realize your own until you experiment. A shift, a name change, can cause you to see your character from another side entirely. After months of working with a character, you may encounter staleness. Write a couple scenes with different name possibilities. See what comes. It might open a new vantage point to a character.
When and where
Where is your story taking place? In what era? You can research the most frequent names chosen in various places and times; how does your choice fit with that?
I have a son named Ole, after his Norwegian great-uncle. People ask how to pronounce his name, and then they let me know that they think it is an odd name. They tend to look a bit blank when I jokingly add, “Ole is Michael in Norway,” meaning that someplace else in the world, it is not at all an odd name; in fact, it is so common that most Oles in Norway add a middle name to distinguish themselves from others. Research: What are the “Michaels” and “Emmas” of elsewhere?
Some years ago, I read a collection of short fiction in which every – every – name was unfamiliar and rarely used. Euphonia and Uriah. (Somebody was having fun with Name Your Baby books.) Unusual names stand out, and as a writer, you can use that to your advantage. But there’s no reason not to use a common name if it fits. The collection paid a price in lost verisimilitude. It’s not about finding a great name; it’s about the right name for the character.
Who comes up with these things?
The tricky part is the realization that you – the author – are not the person who named this character. The character’s parents named them. Or their grandparent. Or sibling. The point is, someone in their fictional world made that choice. When? How? Why? If you are struggling to find the right name, stop to consider this; it may point you in a direction or to some understanding.
While not many people are brave enough to ask a child to name a baby, a friend’s parents were, and they asked their only child at the time, age 5, to come up with a name for her new sibling. She – Kathleen was her name – chose the name Toby. The parents added Ann, for Toby Ann. Ponder: Who named your character? It might add great insight into this character’s family life, or lack thereof.
Characters with more legs
Don’t neglect the names of pets. In Yellow Moon by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the main character’s dog is named Kind Dog. While this says a great deal about the dog, it says even more about the character who chose the name. It also sets a certain tone, and that might be the overriding question when it comes to choosing names: What tone does the name evoke? Does it work with this fictional world, with your theme, with the way you want the prose to sing?
Initials, vowels, and consonants
As your cast grows, you want to watch for repetition of the first letter; readers can be lazy when it comes to names, their eyes glancing over the letters that follow the initial, especially if multiple names have similar syllable counts. You might have a reason for choosing two characters whose names begin with the same letter, but make it a conscious choice.
For example, families tend to gravitate to certain vowel or consonant sounds with offspring. My older brother’s vowels are the same as mine, in the same order: Travis/Alison. My youngest brothers have the same consonant sounds: Nolan/Lorne. This was unconscious on my parents’ part. (I had to ask. I did not ask about my cousin’s choices of Dustin and Justine…)
When you begin to look for this in family names, it will stand out. (Yes, you can make this your new party game). How does this work in your stories? Of course, some siblings have very different names. This might be the result of age gaps, stepparents, aging of parents. What a 20-year-old new mother names a child can be very different from the choices of a 38-year-old. What light might this shed on your story?
Nicknames, middle, and surnames
What are your characters’ nicknames? What does their beloved call them? Their oldest friend? Their neighbor, behind their back? What have their nicknames been in the past? Who gave them the nickname? What did they think of it? What would they like to be called?
Middle name. Often people are secretive about these, or ambivalent (can you afford ambivalence in a character?), or they’ve chosen to use this name and hide their first.
And surnames. Single or hyphenated family names?
How did this person end up with this name? Is it “common?” Unusual? What does it share of background? Is it a background that the character identifies with? Or cares nothing for?
Can’t be anything else
Consider Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. What other handle could that infamous miser have? I remember the book as a child and how hearing his betrothed or his sister call him simply “Ebeneezer” – without the Scrooge – shifted my thinking, made me think of him as younger and even human. It shook me. Complete names make a difference. Or a title and surname say it all, too: “Miss Havisham.” Dickens was genius with names.
He understood that a rose by any other name is Something Else.
Alison Acheson is the author of 11 books, most recently a memoir, Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days With ALS. Explore her Substack, The Unschool for Writers: unschoolforwriters.substack.com.