Think of a famous character from literature. You better believe his or her creator didn’t just pluck the character’s name from a hat and call it a day.
You want the name to suit your character. Even more so, strive to have your character’s name symbolize something about his or her struggle, hint something surprising about this character to readers, fit into your character’s setting, or reveal something about your character’s family.
Now you know why naming your characters can be a tedious and thoughtful task. You may be asking: “How do I start looking for the perfect moniker?”
Here are 5 tips on finding a great character name:
1. Hit the books.
Hit the baby name books, that is! Aside from providing you with a huge database of names from A to Z, the true value in baby name books is the explanations of origins, meanings, symbols and larger cultural associations. Did you know that “Liam” means “helmet” or “protector”? Bequeathing this name onto a backstabbing villain, or a cowardly peripheral character may hint something about Liam’s eventual transformation.
2. Consider sounds.
The combinations of letters and sounds in some names can conjure feelings about the actual people they label. For instance, the name Scout Finch is dominated by hard consonant sounds. Plus, the two choppy syllables fit Scout’s gruff tomboy personality. Similarly, Ebenezer Scrooge just sounds like the perfect moniker for a grumpy old man. Severus Snape wouldn’t have been so vile a character with a name like “Herbie Jenkins.” Play around and see what fits.
3. Be wary of “charged” names.
Emotionally charged or culturally loaded names like Adolph, Madonna, Oprah, or Napoleon can potentially trip up a reader. Be sure to fill readers in. Maybe you can incorporate such a name into your character’s backstory. For instance, maybe a character’s mother is a big Oprah fanatic. What does this say about their relationship?
4. Learn another language.
Does your novel take place in a foreign country? Or, is your main character of a nationality that you don’t know much about? Consider delving into your character’s roots, so to speak, by learning a different language, or interviewing a friend or acquaintance that happens to speak the language you want to know more about.
If you want your readers to understand that one character is brave, investigate the word for “brave” in another language. You may come across vocabulary that jogs your right brain and get you thinking about the ideal first and last names. Even if your character doesn’t speak the language you investigate, that doesn’t mean you can’t give him a name from that language. Making an unexpected choice like this may lead you down an interesting path as you continue to write your novel.
5. Go to the movies.
You know those seemingly endless movie credits at the end of the movie? They can be great resources for gathering name ideas. Keep this in mind especially as you head to bigger blockbusters that were shot around the world — like movies in the James Bond franchise, or Lord of the Rings, for example. More often than not, each location has its own local set of crew members. For instance, the crew of a Belfast shoot may have many Irish names, the crew of an Egyptian shoot may have many Arabic names, and so on. This can be a fun way to find inspiration.
No matter what path you explore, know that the quest for a great character name can be one of the most exciting parts of the brainstorming process. As I’ve seen in working with fiction authors, a great deal of careful thought goes into selecting the perfect name for a novel’s character. Happy writing!