What’s in a name? 8 creative ways to find the name that best fits your character

This is a post by Novel Publicity President, Emlyn Chand

Last week, I wrote a post for my author blog entitled “What’s in a name? Our characters’ names matter. Here’s how I chose mine.” I wasn’t expecting a great deal of traffic since the post was largely specific to my own writing, but I was wrong. The post attracted other authors, book bloggers, and fans of my books. I was just blown away by how much people enjoyed a post I was expecting to be mostly ignored.

Well, I heard that message loud and clear. Both writers and readers are interested in how authors name their characters. Accordingly, I’ve adapted my original post to fit the format of the Novel Publicity Free Advice Blog. Here are my tips for naming your characters and a few cautionary notes as well.

1. Babynames.com. This site hosts thousands of names. You can search by gender, cultural background, meaning, first letter—it’s awesome. When I start a new manuscript, I spend hours searching the database. I love assigning names that reflect key components of my characters. For example, the good guy protagonist in my YA novel is named Alex, which means “defender of the people.” I also named a spirit medium Shapri, which means “gentle and friendly mediator.” It’s true most readers will never know the meaning behind the names you pick, but still! One author who pays great attention to what her characters’ names mean is JK Rowling—and who wouldn’t want to be like JK?

2. Google Translate. This is a surprisingly fun tool. Sure, you could stick with common last names that sound nice when tacked on to your protag’s first name, but you can also build in an added layer of meaning by using Google Translate. Is your character a Russian lady who’s overly fond of cats? Why not give her the last name Koshkov? Just use Google Translate to find out the Russian equivalent of cat. If you can’t read Cyrillic, you can listen to the pronunciation of the word. Cat in Russian is кошка (pronounced “koshka”). Next, do a Google search on “Russian last names” and pay attention to the endings. You’ll see that -ov, -in, and –ev are all common suffixes. Add one to the root of koshka, and you’ve got a custom character name. Hooray! Okay, so it helps if you speak the language, but it’s not necessary. I used Russian as an example since that’s a language I know, but when writing Farsighted, I created custom Greek and French last names (Kosmitoras and LaFache), and I speak neither of those languages.

3. True to the character’s background. Each character’s background is influenced by several factors. Gender, ethnicity, age, generation, social class—all play a role and need to be accounted for when assigning names. If you are writing a historical novel about a Persian princess, you probably don’t want to name her Latoya or Kyle. It just doesn’t work. Be especially mindful when writing fiction set in an era or culture other than your own. If you aren’t sure whether a name is appropriate, ask someone who would know. For example, I love the name Simran and wanted to assign it to a ninety-year-old Punjabi woman in an Indian coming-of-age story about the partition. When I told this to my husband, he laughed at me for at least five minutes and then said, “You can’t name a Chai-ji Simran. That’s a modern girl’s name.” I acquiesced and decided to give the name to a teenage character in another of my novels.

4. Different, but not too weird. Yes, it’s nice to come up with original names, but if you’re too original, you may alienate or confuse readers. Fantasy and science fiction authors, especially, need to be mindful of this. It’s totally okay to name your character Delton 6XQVR or Shindolianago, but at least give them shortened nicknames like Delta and Shin. Also be careful about using too many alternate forms of a single name. A lot of readers struggle with Russian literature because each character has several different names when you factor in diminutive forms and patronymics. Add flavor, yes, but be sure the reader knows who you’re talking about! I’m working on a novel that features a Hopi boy as one of the main characters. I decided to name him Wikvaya to stay true to his culture and then shortened to Wick as a nickname.  Oh, and be ready for readers to mispronounce the more unusual names. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people pronounce my character’s name Shapri (shuh-pree) as Sharpie (as in the marker).

5. Distinct. If you have two or more characters with similar sounding names, you may get yourself in trouble. Try to keep each name distinct. Some readers confuse my characters Simmi and Shapri because both names start with S- and end in –I. Which brings me to my next point…

6. Be mindful of your sound addictions. You probably won’t even realize you have them until a reader points it out. I like girl’s names that start with S- and guy’s names that include the letter X. I named a character in my current WIP Axel, before realizing that I had taken the name of the protagonist from my other novel (Alex) and just rearranged the letters. Bad Emlyn! Needless to say, I am not allowed to use the letter X in character or place names anymore. I’m a recovering X-aholic 😛

7. Poll your friends and fans. I did this, and it was super fun. Not only do you get a wealth of great ideas, you involve your readers and get them excited. What could be better? Try polling your friends in the following way:

  • Describe the character’s personality, appearance, and role in the story
  • Ask readers to make suggestions for names they think fit the profile
  • Choose the top 3-5 names and set-up a poll
  • Encourage your readers to vote
  • The name with the most votes will be assigned to the character.

I did this for the character Ronnie Franklin who is debuting in my next novel. I needed a mean girl name, and, boy, did people have lots and lots of suggestions! As a bonus, I now have a reserve of about 20 mean girl names that I’m assigning to minor characters in some of my other novels.

8. If the name doesn’t fit, change it. Sometimes we try to force names on our characters that just don’t work. This could be because the character changes as he develops during the course of the story or maybe the name was never right to begin with. Don’t force yourself to keep a name that isn’t serving your character well. I changed the name of my protag in Farsighted 3 times before finally settling on Alex. The most important thing is getting it right, not getting it right the first time.

 

How do you name your characters? Do you have any other tips? Leave a comment, and let us know!

 

Emlyn Chand, President of Novel PublicityAbout this post’s author:

Emlyn Chand is the president of Novel Publicity and a YA author. She loves to hear and tell stories and emerged from the womb with a fountain pen grasped firmly in her left hand (true story). Her first novel Farsighted released in late 2011 and her next two are due out this year. Learn more about Emlyn at www.emlynchand.com or by connecting with her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or GoodReads.


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