Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Naming characters is a mercurial task. Sometimes, characters arrive in your mind wearing a name badge. Sometimes, their name is so hidden that you get the impression they’re only joining your story to lay low.
Generally, experimentation is the answer, but I’m not here today to give you tips on where to find names. That’s something we covered in The Definitive Guide To Naming Your Characters, and we’re loathe to repeat ourselves.
No; in this article, I’ll be describing the things that authors forget when choosing a name for their characters – the little details and considerations that should be used to interrogate a potential name but often fall by the wayside.
Some of them are potential problems, while others can make your naming more effective, but they’re all things you may not have considered when choosing a character’s name.
Culture can throw up a lot of unexpected issues when naming characters. Most of us know that, when naming a character from a given culture, it’s a good idea to consider what names are most likely to be used. The world is endlessly varied, but beginning from a position of understanding the ‘name pool’ of a given culture lends authenticity, even if you ultimately venture outside that pool.
Despite this, a lot of cultures have naming traditions that might not be immediately apparent. The most obvious example is pronunciation – if one French character says to another French character, ‘Your room’s looking clean, Jean’, it’s unlikely that the last two words rhyme. Likewise, a character of mixed heritage named ‘José Jones’ probably doesn’t have an alliterative name.
If you’re writing characters from an unfamiliar culture, research naming traditions to avoid falling at the first hurdle.Click To Tweet
Beyond this, there are other assumptions that authors may miss if they’re not familiar with a given culture. Icelandic names are traditionally patronymic or matronymic, with the forename of the parent becoming the basis of the surname for the child: Magnus Jónsson and Margret Jónsdottir are the children of Jón Einarsson. Likewise, many cultures order names with the ‘surname’ first: Yao Ming is the son of Yao Zhiyuan.
It’s easy to see how such missed assumptions can quickly tank the authenticity of a book or character – and the authority of the author – so it’s vital to do a little research into naming when dealing with unfamiliar cultures.
L.P. Hartley said ‘the past is a foreign country’, and it’s certainly true that the same rules that apply to culture apply to time periods. It goes without saying that there weren’t many Chads in Victorian London, but writing era-appropriate names isn’t solely a matter of avoiding the unbelievable.
First of all, it’s worth looking up what names were popular within a given year. An era-appropriate name can help make a single character believable, but a believable world needs the cohesiveness of a more comprehensive understanding. Western names tend to be cyclical – they start as ‘young’, age with their bearers, and then become ‘young’ again once a generation arrives who don’t remember older people with those names. Because of this, there are sets of names which are likely to co-occur in a time period and names which aren’t.Some names pass in and out of fashion, some were never very popular, and some have gone extinct. If your story is set in the past, it’s your job to know which is which.Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, sometimes the real world throws fiction a curveball, and you’ll need to research both what’s realistic (i.e. what replicates reality) and what’s verisimilitudinous (i.e. what feels realistic to the reader). Author Jo Walton coined the term ‘The Tiffany Problem’ to describe the divide between how people ‘see’ history versus how it actually was. In choosing this term, Walton is referring to the medieval name ‘Tiffany’, a variation of ‘Theophania’, as something that’s totally realistic but completely un-verisimilitudinous. In such cases, it’s generally smoother for your writing to ‘feel’ real than to insist the reader adjust their expectations. The latter course isn’t unreasonable, but it takes a lot of mental effort, which means the reader isn’t focusing on your story.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that last names can get rarer and even go extinct over time, meaning that the range of surnames is likely to be broader in the past and narrower in the future (unless your story offers a reason for things to be otherwise – in real life, a lessening in the tradition of wives taking their husband’s surnames has already slowed this process).
One of the oddest things authors forget when naming their characters is that, in the world of the story, someone else named them. This tends to come up in a lot of modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories – it’s such an unusual name (and one that, in our own world, we so associate with that character) that authors often lampshade this fact by pointing out that Holmes must have unusual parents.
Of course, we tend to name characters to suit their role in the story, but if that’s how it feels to the reader – that this character’s purpose echoed back through time and gave them the perfect name – they’re severed from a sense of history that would help build their character.
As you choose a name, keep in mind how and why the character got that name – who gave it to them – but also how they live with it.
In Great Expectations, Pip is called ‘Pip’ because he can’t pronounced ‘Philip Pirrip’, his given name. Dickens often chose to give his characters evocative names – the diminutive ‘Pip’ suits the character’s role in the story and invites empathy – but by finding a reason for someone to adopt an otherwise unusual name, he also gets the chance to give Pip some backstory and further characterization.
In real life, people often go by nicknames or even just slight variations on their given names. In The Baby-Sitters Club series, a character named ‘Anastasia’ goes by ‘Stacey’. It’s not a drastic change, but it takes a simple name and makes it a character’s choice, communicating a little about how this person wants to be seen. In this way, it’s possible not just to give a character the name you’ve chosen, but to create a path backwards that embeds that name in their life.Where did your character’s name come from? Do they like it? Do they go by a nickname? Each of these questions offers opportunities for characterization.Click To Tweet
The effect is that a name does more than just identify a person, it speaks to who they are. Pip’s story is one of social ambition (of living up to great expectations), and it’s no coincidence that he can’t say his own name. Philip Pirrip is who Pip would like to be, who others thought he could be, but someone he is unable to claim he is at the beginning of the story. That’s a lot of narrative value to squeeze out of a name.
For all its embedded meaning, a character’s name is still a storytelling tool, and that means it has to be fit for purpose. Assuming the name already fits the story and character, this tends to depend on two factors: whether a name is memorable and whether it’s distinguishable from other names.
How memorable a name is should suit how memorable you want a character to be – if the reader can’t remember your protagonist’s name, that’s probably not a great sign, but if they can’t remember the name of a minor character from chapter three, that’s not a problem, and it probably means you didn’t give undue prominence to someone who didn’t matter to the story.
There are lots of ways to achieve a memorable name, and this isn’t the place to go into them, but some ideas include choosing a name that speaks to purpose or nature (as with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), using alliteration to make a word ‘bounce’ (as with Miss Marple), employing an existing but little-used word that sits on the cusp of familiarity (as with Dumbledore), drawing on mythology (as with Abel Magwitch), or even just pairing a long word with a short word (as with Huckleberry Finn).
Something to keep in mind when choosing a memorable name is that it should also be distinguishable from other names. On the small scale, this means that no other character should go by a similar name that will confuse the reader. The movie version of Fifty Shades Darker matches its protagonist, Anastasia, with a colleague named ‘Hannah’. Since Anastasia goes by ‘Ana’ at work, there’s the potential for needless confusion, or even just distraction as the viewer notices they’re hearing the same sound over and over again.When naming your characters, ensure important names are memorable and easily distinguished.Click To Tweet
On a larger scale, you also need to consider other works, and this is a concept that feeds into our next consideration.
Names bring history with them, both real and fictional. Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris’ cannibal doctor, is a man of tactical genius and refinement, and part of that characterization comes from the name he shares with Hannibal Barca, the real-life general who is considered one of the greatest military commanders in history.
Harris uses this connection to his advantage, but it can also be a problem if you create an association you’re not aware of. If readers arrive with expectations about who a character is, your own characterization may not convince them to think otherwise but instead be seen through the context they brought with them.
There’s also the potential issue of putting your characters in the shadow of other figures. Rise of the Planet of the Apes focuses on Caesar, a super-intelligent ape who eventually establishes an empire. It’s an obvious historical reference, and it lends context to the ape’s journey, but it also puts a firm ceiling on how iconic the character can become. Googling ‘Caesar’ is never going to bring that character up as its first result, and anyone discussing ‘Caesar’ will always have to contextualize who they mean. This isn’t the case for characters like Bambi, Aragorn, or Harry Potter.
Even though the last of these isn’t an inherently iconic name, a person can immediately say something about ‘Harry Potter’ and a reasonably media-savvy person will know exactly what they’re talking about – something Caesar can never do for the media in which he appears.
If you choose to select a name because of the baggage it brings with it, keep in mind that too direct of a reference may mean you have to carry that baggage forever. Harry Potter is an ordinary name, but it’s now firmly associated with a specific character. Caesar brings a lot of context with it, but it sacrifices iconic status in doing so. Of course, there’s always an exception that proves the rule – Hannibal Lecter is a striking, iconic name despite its famous historical connection. Perhaps it’s that ‘Lecter’ brings its own connotation, setting the full name apart, or perhaps it’s because the franchise simply got big enough that it didn’t matter.
Finally, it’s important to make sure that readers are going to understand the name you’ve chosen. Pronunciation is often a guessing game, and fans of characters like J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger and DC’s John Constantine can end up disagreeing about how a name should sound.
The only solution is to nip things in the bud early – Rowling eventually had Hermione specify how her name is pronounced, but by then it was too late for many fans who had come to love the character by a (slightly) different name.
This isn’t the type of thing that’s likely to ruin your story, but it does make a reader’s journey more difficult, and it can create disagreement and confusion where none needs to exist. Be aware of names your readers are likely to find unfamiliar, and use varied beta readers to identify points of confusion. If you spot something that’s going to cause problems, find an in-story way of clearing things up.
The game of the name
When it comes to naming your character, there are lots of ways to find the perfect name, but there are also pitfalls that you should consider before finalizing your decision. Remember to take culture, era, origins, function, baggage, and clarity into consideration, using these categories to guide your research and search out ways to make your chosen name even more effective.
What names have you accepted or rejected for your characters, and why? Let me know in the comments, and check out The Definitive Guide To Naming Your Characters and Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device for more great advice on this topic.