Naming characters seems like something fun at first thought. You spend an hour or two skimming through baby naming websites or books and find a whole list of really cool and unique names. Your list grows, and you then spend some time poring over the multitude of epic names you’ve collected.
Sound about right?
There’s something you may be doing wrong if you do it this way. I know this may not be something you want to hear, but let’s get real. Naming characters is hard.
That’s why I’ve compiled a few tips for choosing the perfect name for your new character. These should help you come up with a name that not only stands out, but also makes the most sense for your project. (Pssst! I have a super handy worksheet for you to record names as you do your research! Find it here!)
Naming Characters for Your Projects
Research your era
That’s right, the time period of your story matters. A lot.
When you think about the name Betsy, what do you think? How about Bertha? Maybe Julius? These names may still be used sparsely in current times, but they tend to be a callback to the past.
And what about the name Juniper? Or Snow? Or, for that matter, Frost? These ones are usually more modern, as people search for names that haven’t been used over and over again for as long as anyone can remember.
The name you choose should make sense to the story you’d like to tell – and yes, this does still matter even for artists. Even artists have backstories for their characters, and most artists I know take great care in crafting stories almost (if not more) as elaborate as writers.
You don’t want to give a character in the Victorian era a name that didn’t come into existence until more recent times. It won’t make sense, and it will stand out (in a bad way) to your audience.
Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, depending on the type of story you have to tell, but as a general guideline, knowing the era of your character’s world is really important in naming characters.
Does the name actually work for your character?
As I mentioned above, most people spend a while sifting through names to find something that will stand out and be remembered. While that’s a good thing, you don’t want to pick a name just because it sounds cool. What if it doesn’t actually work for that character?
It doesn’t matter how unique your chosen name is, if it doesn’t work for your character, it just won’t sit right. Like a wad of gum that’s too large to chew: it might taste great, but it doesn’t fit.
Unfortunately, no one can really tell you if a name doesn’t fit unless you test it out. But there are ways to check it yourself.
First, write it out and see how you like the sound of it. What does the name bring to mind for you (while keeping it separate from your character)? Is it a strong name, or does it seem light and airy?
Next, write a few paragraphs of your story (yes, even artists should give this a shot) using that name. Nothing crazy, just test it out and see how it flows. It doesn’t have to be written well at all. You can even write it like you’re describing that character to a friend or something if that’s easier.
If you do those things once, it’s easy to just replace the name with something else until you find something that really fits.
Use the name’s meaning to your advantage
Basically, take the meaning of the name into account when choosing. A lot of baby name websites and apps will let you search through their database using nothing but the meaning, which comes in really handy.
You want to name a mermaid? Look for names that mean water, ocean, or sea. Have a soldier you need to name? Look for warrior names – something that means knight or fighter.
While some of you may already do this, a lot of people actually don’t take the meaning into account when choosing a name. Although it’s not necessary, or even important, to know the meaning, it can help you find something you may not have considered using before.
Keep in mind, you don’t have to even take the meaning into consideration – it’s just a way to help you narrow down what you want and find a name that may work. You can also look at using a name that means the opposite of what you think would work. This could be handy when naming a character who is rebelling against their norms and trying to be something new and different and grow away from what’s expected of them.
Don’t forget about the origin
Where a name comes from doesn’t always matter in present day – even in real life. But knowing the origin of a name can help you immensely with your character development.
You probably noticed the origin of names listed while you looked through the meanings of names in your research. Sometimes it’s unknown, but it’s usually there. Usually we can just overlook it, but when you get serious about a name, you might want to know where it originated.
You don’t want to give your overly traditional Englishman a surname from Spain. It just doesn’t make sense.
So while you’re recording names, be sure to write the origin alongside the meaning. It’s easier to do it right away than to have to look it up again later. You’ll thank yourself.
Choose a last name that flows
By this I mean find a name to go with the first one. Something that sounds good when you say it out loud. A name that isn’t too long or too much of a mouthful.
Maybe your character doesn’t need a last name, and that’s okay. But consider finding one anyway. Even if you never publicize the name you choose, it can help you know your character a little better, and it may help you find a flaw in the name you’ve chosen as their given name.
If you do need a surname, consider the first point in this post. Some last names didn’t make an appearance until more recently, while others have been around for what seems like forever.
Also take into account the meaning of the name for this as well. Obviously a name like Potter has a certain meaning, just like Thatcher or Brewer. These types of names refer to the jobs held by those who bore them. This may help you develop your character by simply stating what their last name is early in your story.
To sum up
Naming characters doesn’t have to be a difficult thing. It may take some time to find the right name, but maybe you’ll land on something perfect right away. In the end, all that matters if that you like it. If you don’t think it works, then it won’t work, but if you chose the name for a reason, there’s probably an attachment to it that means you should keep it.
If you use the tips above, you should be well on your way to coming up with the absolute perfect name for your character. It may seem like a lot of things to remember, but it’s all pretty straight forward stuff. Just keep those things in mind, and get researching!
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