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On the Naming of Characters

July 6, 2011

Over the weekend, fellow writer and blogger T.S. Bazelli posted to her blog a little piece about her process for naming characters.  I was going to respond to her blog with a comment of my own, but after I’d passed the 200-word mark in my comment, I realized I had a full-fledged blog post of my own on the topic waiting to be written.  And so, I now provide to all of my blog readers my own thoughts and remarks on the trials and travails of naming characters, for the edification of all.

Sometimes names for characters come easily, sometimes they are very hard.  This can be of some concern for me, because of a particular writing penchant of mine: a character is his or her name.  Without a name, I don’t feel connected enough to a character to write definitively or authoritatively about that character.  I can pen vague notes and ideas – but I can’t say for sure who a character is or what he or she will do.  And if I can’t do that, I can’t plot a novel or story – and I sure-as-sugar can’t write it.  This was of particular concern to me last week, as I started to write about the second of two protagonists on my current novel project, “The Book of M”. 

The main character of “Book of M” has always been some version of “Isabella”, though she’s more commonly called “Isa”. From when I first wrote down the idea that was the genesis of this novel, I used that moniker.  There has been some adjustment to the long-form of her name, to fit with the language of her people, but she’s still “Isa”.  Her co-protagonist, on the other hand, was originally named “Falkirk”.  But for various reasons… I abandoned that name.  (One particularly silly reason, perhaps… there is a chance I may want to use a similar-sounding name for an important character in my “Project SOA”… and since “SOA” is the book-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever, it has a  higher precedence in my mental hierarchy of novels, so it gets first dibs on awesome or potentially awesome or fitting character names.)  I’m still figuring out that character’s name… but I think I have it, now.  I feel good enough about the name that I’m almost-settled on that I can start writing a little more confidently about him.

The main character of “Project SOA” was originally an anagram for the name “Taran”, the hero of Lloyd Alexander‘s Prydain Chronicles.  As I’ve written before, the Prydain Chronicles were a powerful influence over my early development as a writer, and it was in trying to emulate what I’d found there that I ever became a writer in the first place.  Eventually, I discovered that my anagrammatic name was already in use, but always as a female (whereas the character in question is a male).  I first saw it in an “Ultima” game title, and later I saw it pop up as a minor character in “The Wheel of Time“.  By that point, the name had insinuated itself into the history and world of the story.  I was never worried about the fact that the name kept popping up as feminine in other fantasy fiction contexts – this is my fantasy world, after all. Eventually, however, I realized that it was foolish to have the main character share a name with a historical figure in the same world – and I felt more strongly that the name was true to the historical figure so that person got to keep it.  The main character of “SOA”, meanwhile, remains to this day officially unnamed.  (Although, I frequently refer to him in my notes by his old name… though also sometimes only as “the Hero”.)

Where do I get my names?  I have several sources – and what I use depends largely on what I’m writing.  If I’m writing something contemporary, set in the modern world, I usually will just go with whatever names come into my head.  I don’t put a lot of research into it – especially not for given names.  Surnames are typically a different matter: that’s where I often go for buried meanings.  In one short story, the main character was an anachronistic modern-day knight.  So his last name was “Page“, which is a reference to the medieval title of a “page” who is the servant of a knight.   For another character, I wanted to hint at some specific nature or affinity.  I decided what the character’s family history was – that she was of Eastern European or Russian descent – then looked up a specific word in those languages that had the appropriate connotation, and took the resulting translation and anglicized it (to reflect a past family history of emigration to the U.S.).  Other times, though, I just choose a culturally appropriate name.  This may and has required some research to find appropriate surnames.  Historically, I’ve looked up encyclopedia entries on famous individuals from different cultures and then mixed-and-matched first-and-last names.  More recently, I became aware of this site, a sub-site of the more well-known, given-name-focused “Behind the Name” site.

In secondary-world fantasies, I’ve learned to take a different approach.  The first go-to source for names in a secondary world is mythology and folklore.  That’s a way to imply all sorts of meanings and associations about the nature of a character.  Quite often, in fantasy, I am turning to a specific source of world mythology as inspiration for some elements of the plot and theme of a particular story.  And so, quite naturally, I mine the heck out of that mythology for suitable names as well.  But even though this may be the best source for names, it’s not always my first or most frequent.

More commonly, I do one of two things.  Either (a) smash syllables together until I have something euphonious that sticks or (b) nab real-world, sometimes even contemporary names and fantasy-fy them up.  For instance, the latter method yielded the young page-boy’s name in this story, whereas the former yielded the viewpoint character’s name in the same.

The longer the work, though, the more I worry about linguistic and phonological agreement of the name.  In a contemporary setting, where anyone from anywhere can be anywhere in the world for almost any reason… that’s not such a big deal.  But in a pre-modern fantasy world, if a character has a name that stands out as obviously different from the names and culture of others in his or her world, that’s going to raise the notice of some readers.  I don’t want to bust a reader’s suspension of disbelief over something like the name of a character.  And so, when writing a novel, I’ve started putting more and more work into names (and languages) up-front.  Mostly, that means figuring out what languages sound like – and thus what the attendant names will sound like.  I’ve also developed name-lists for my worlds.  Initially, a name list may consist of a number of regular but unclaimed names that might be common to a particular culture or language group.  Eventually, as I need names for new characters, I’ll turn to my name-lists for new character names.  But this is at a later stage of development.  At the earliest stages, I’m most concerned about deciding on the names of the main characters.

It’s at this early stage when the tension between euphony, linguistic and phonologic harmony, and the creative urge are at their highest point.  That’s when I have the need to tell the story, but need the name to tell it, and don’t want to have to come back later to correct for a linguistic snafu.  And, to go back to my most recent Writing Progress update, that was the situation I found myself in last week, before extended conversations with my Dear Wife yielded some promising candidates for my co-protagonist’s name.

It’s an exquisite sort of problem to have.  Names really are important to us.  As individuals, our names – what we call ourselves – matter.  It will matter for your characters, as well.  That’s why I need to know what to call my characters before I can really start to figure out who they are.

So yeah… a little long for a comment reply to someone else’s blog post?  Perhaps, yes.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 12:40 pm

    Haha yes, a little bit long for a blog comment, but good to see your process in more depth. The surname link is a gold mine! Thanks for sharing that one. I like researching names for the fun of it (not just for fiction).

    “a character is his or her name” I think of it that way too, or rather, “a character becomes his or her name” so picking the right one is key to my understanding of the character.

    • July 6, 2011 1:11 pm

      You’re welcome on the link. 🙂 It’s a recent discovery for me as well. I’d been aware of “Behind the Name” for a while (and used it) but didn’t know the same resource existed for surnames.

      You’re right… it’s more of a ‘becoming” than an “is”. Names have power that way… almost, you might say, in a magical way.

  2. July 6, 2011 1:40 pm

    Wow. That’s really in-depth. I kind of use a mash-up of all those examples that you described to form my characters’ names. I like names that have meaning, but I will, rarely, make up names.

    • July 6, 2011 2:04 pm

      I like it when names have meaning, too. But… sometimes, names in the real world don’t have meaning. So that reflects in my stories sometimes. Even then, though… there may not be an overt meaning, but I’ll still try for an implied meaning through the mechanism of sound association. For instance, in one story I have a character who was kind of deep-down a greedy and mean and prideful bastard. But he made a show of caring for his community. So, his surname is “Hackett”, which doesn’t mean anything specific, but has a sound-relationship with the word “hack”, such as “to cut away at something relentlessly”. The harsh, cutting sounds of his name suggest the kind of mean person he is, without being overt. The name doesn’t actually mean anything relevant (or at least nothing that I looked up ahead of time), but the sound suggests something that does.

      I can do the same thing in secondary-world fantasy, just making everything up from scratch.

  3. July 7, 2011 11:13 am

    I agree – names can be incredibly important for us as writers. They help us peg down who our characters are, their voices, even sometimes the way they look.

    However, I’ve also found that changing a name doesn’t have to be the end of the world. For instance, in my current WiP I kept referring to a character as Mr. Adams instead of using his given name, and it gave, overall, the wrong impression of him. Even though I always thought of him as Mr. Adams in my mind, once I changed the name I grew to like it!

    • July 7, 2011 11:20 am

      Sure, changing the name can be the right thing to do. But it can also be really hard. We grow attached to the names that we’ve been using. That’s why it has been so hard on me to settle on name for the main character of my “Project SOA” book. It’s been several years since I decided he needed a new name, and I still haven’t settled on one. For the co-protagonist of “Book of M”, meanwhile – I hadn’t really come to know or care about the character, yet, becuase the novel was still in planning stages. So deciding I needed to change his name was comparatively easy.

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