What’s in a name?
According to studies, quite a lot.
Have you ever been either attracted to or repelled by a book description because of the character’s name? I Have. Names that are too ‘trendy’ or especially ‘place’ names give me an impression of a young writer who is likely to show me a shallow character. Fair or not, that’s the effect it has on me.
Names can give an impression of era. Not just the obvious like choosing outdated Victorian names for a Victorian era novel, but the subtleties of baby naming trends. The first thing I do when choosing a name for a character is to work out how old they would be in the year the book will be released and look up top baby names for the year they would have to be born to be that age. For example, for 2019 releases, if I want a young adult character, I might look up popular baby names from the year 2000. My search engine of choice is usually ecosia.org, because they use profits to plant trees.
The second thing I consider is name meanings. How does the name fit the personality of the character? I wouldn’t name an aggressive character Kevin, for example. He’s more likely to have a harder sounding name, something with a ‘K’ in the middle perhaps but no ‘V’. Kevin is far to sensitive a name for someone like, say, an assassin, unless you’re going for incongruity.
I’ve always tried to make the name meaning fit the nature of the character in some way and find I’m pretty satisfied with the choices I make. The characters tend to settle into their names like a good fit and develop at least close to how they were intended.
Fantasy character names are a different kettle of fish. Those who have read this genre over the years will already be familiar with the two main methods of coming up with fantasy character names: Totally making them up or adapting a more familiar name to fit. Occasionally a writer might choose interesting sounding foreign names.
The trouble with the made-up names is they can become too elaborate. I’ve seen many comments in reader groups from people who won’t read Fantasy because they can’t work out how to pronounce the names. I’ve read books that give weird spellings for made-up names and it can really throw the reader out of the story.
Some of the most clever adapted-from-ordinary names I’ve seen are in the Songs of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Arya, one of the most popular characters, has become a commonly used name now but in India the name Aarya was already well-established. Jon, of course, is a simple one. But names like Eddard (close to Edward), Catelyn (similar to Caitlyn), Androw (Andrew), Victaria (Victoria) and Petyr (like the Russian version of Peter) strike a familiar note, while taking us into that touch of other worldliness associated with Fantasy fiction.
When I choose names for new Fantasy characters, I’ve got in the habit of finding a name with the right meaning in the ordinary baby name lists, then putting it through my own Goblin Name Generator which is one of the games on my website at http://jaqdhawkins.com/name.php
This is where I got the name for Lesana, a female Alchemist character who came into existence in my story, The Wizard’s Quandary, which was included in the anthology, Dreamtime Damsels & Fatal Femmes [https://www.amazon.com/Dreamtime-Damsels-Fatal-Femmes-Anthology-ebook/dp/B07WFWSQ26]. This anthology has a theme of strong female protagonists. The response to that story convinced me that Lesana and her world needed a new series to further develop, which is scheduled into my 2020 writing plans.
Names are regional to an extent. If I’m setting my story in England for example, I might well have some names that are found in all English-speaking countries like Michael or Jonathan, but as soon as a character called Nigel enters, the reader is firmly placed in the UK. Conversely, if instead a pair of sisters named Crystal and Lacey come into the story, the reader will be transported to the American South.
How do you go about naming your characters? Do you always use names you like, or do you look for evocative names for the bad guys to create a negative reaction as you write them? Let’s get a discussion going in the comments.
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