community, Encouragement, reading, writing

How to Name Your Characters

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This is definitely an issue for writers. When you create characters, you go through the same process that expecting parents do — you want to give your “child” a name that you like, but that also fits in with your family, society, culture and the time period you’re all alive in. And it’s important to get these details right, because it helps your reader relate to the characters — and we all want that to happen, right?

So, here are some tips on how to find great names for your fictional babies:

Consider the time period your character was born in. Not the year you’re setting your story in, but when the person was born — this is mega-essential because most people are given names that reflect what’s going on at the time of their birth, not when you’re actually describing the plot. For example, The Order of the Twelve Tribes (my series) is set in present day, but most of the characters are between 15 and 45 years old, and their names take that into account. A middle-aged man or woman in 2017 would have a name that was popular in the 1960s, and their adolescent children would (most likely) have names that were big on parents’ radar at the start of the 21st century.

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Be sure to decide on your character’s ethnic/cultural background, and remember that when naming. Maybe your story’s set in modern America, but if your people are immigrants or belong to certain religions, their families may have wanted to pay homage to that by selecting a name from “the old country” or a religious tradition.

Fantasy/sci-fi names don’t have to sound “fantastical” or “alien.” Lots of readers struggle with this, especially in sci-fi or high fantasy novels. It can really trip up the flow of reading if you have to stop and sound out a name every other paragraph. If you’re writing about an alien race, how about mixing similar words from foreign languages — example, French and Spanish, or Latin and Italian — but not including too many syllables, to come up with names that sound unique and part of that culture, but that your readers can also pronounce. (Marie Lu’s The Young Elites and Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark are good examples of this technique.)

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It’s more than okay to use names that aren’t exactly “in fashion” at the moment. When I was researching this subject for my own characters, I discovered that people really seem to like using popular names over and over.

And I’ve found there’s this trend in recent fiction recently, where it’s apparently mandatory to call every heroine a variation of Isabelle, or every hero a version of Alexander. Okay, not every single book/series, but is anybody else thinking this as they read? And quite frankly, it ticked me off, because I really like both of these names and was already planning to include them in my own work. Anyway, after having established several of my characters with classic/common names, I decided to try to “diversify” more with the rest.

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Visit websites and conduct up-to-date research. Nameberry (Google it) is extremely helpful, not just for name origins and meanings, but explaining the history of the name’s use, whether it’s so intensely popular that it could take a break from the cultural public eye, and even offers alternatives. And the site also has lists of popular baby names given in the UK, Ireland, France, etc.

And remember — don’t stress about it. If you feel like you’re about to have a nervous breakdown over getting your characters the “perfect” names, then you’re trying too hard. Trust me, it doesn’t have to be “perfect,” it just has to fit your story, the background, and your fictional friend’s “feel”.

And don’t forget, taste in names is like taste in salad dressing — it’s very subjective, and no matter how marvelous you think your narrator’s name is, there will always be somebody who goes, “Ehhh, I wish she was called Bernadette.”

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2 thoughts on “How to Name Your Characters”

  1. Wonderful advice! I like the don’t stress about it—it took me a long time to learn that one. Now, I accept that my character will probably go through several name changes, especially if my idea of who they are is still forming. My writings are almost always set in the 19th century in America, and that limits me a lot as to which names I can pick. Thankfully, there are a lot of great resources online (genealogy sites are always great for finding out what names were really common). My favourite tool, though, is still the beat-up old baby name book I used to use for naming my dolls when I was a little girl. The one I have is really great because it tells you the cultural origins of the names. Anyway, wonderful post! Glad to see that you’re posting more writing advice, because you’re very good at giving it!

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