Character Names: Finding the perfect one
By Kathleen McIntosh
Just as parents exhaust name books and websites searching for the name for their wee ones, so do we writers comb them too for not one or even just a handful of appellations. The prospect of naming an entire cast of characters can be overwhelming, and if perusing the SSA Top 1000 and countless other name lists isn’t your thing, here are a few methods to find the perfect character name. and hopefully minimizing the madness!
J.R.R. Tolkien borrowed from many sources in naming the populace of Middle Earth, including mythology and nature. A linguistics scholar, he also created entire languages and named The Lord of the Rings’ central character, Frodo (shown), from an Old English word for “wise.” (Appropriate for a character, who, by the end of his trials, is wise beyond his years and follows his uncle beyond the sea into the unknown.)
You can easily search Nameberry and Google name meanings. If you’re looking for “fiery” names, for instance, you’ll find results like Seraphina and Ignatius. Just be aware that meanings can be difficult to verify, so you may want to dig deeper into the history of the names you find.
In Rick Riordan’s series, mythological characters are real. Some of the characters, though, are named in honor of those that don’t feature in the books. For instance, Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, is named after Perseus, son of Zeus, in an attempt to appease his uncle for his existence. Jason Grace is named after Jason the Argonaut and his sister, Thalia, for the muse of comedy.
Mythology, Shakespeare, other classic literature, and history are great sources for characters’ names. Especially when the allusion is relatively unknown and your character’s personality/role mimics theirs.
Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassins trilogy takes place in medieval France and uses many historical characters. Additionally, the characters she fabricates have names that would be commonly used during that period, such as Louise and Jean.
While Googling can yield some helpful results, not all will be accurate. Be cautious, and look at old documents from your period if you can. If you’re writing a period piece after 1880 in the United States, the SSA is a great resource.
Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to choose names currently in use. Like the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender, you may decide to fabricate names, applying your own guidelines to form cohesiveness. Nearly every character from the Southern Water Tribe, for instance, has a K in their name: Sokka, Katara, Hakoda. The Fire Nation features Z’s: Ozai, Zuko, Azula. This distinguishes the cultures from one another and establishes their traditions.
Guidelines for your created names could include picking a specific sound/letter for diverse groups, using long/short names with or without nicknames, forgoing/adopting alliteration. Patterns help you narrow your choices and make the characters’ names memorable and believable for your audience.
J.K. Rowling’s Xenophilius Lovegood is named using the Greek “xeno” and “phile,” roughly translating to “love of the strange,” an appropriate name for a character that believes in and adores things that most other wizards consider too “out there.” Many established names were created with such wordplay; all the “son” names literally mean “son of ___.”
Whether you’re borrowing from English or another language (ancient or modern), wordplay is a fun and clever way to create the most apt name for your character. Anonyma, anyone?
Some word names are subtle, like The Hunger Games’ Katniss being a plant that’s commonly referred to as “arrowhead” (apt for an archer). Some are not, like How to Train Your Dragon’s Stoic. “Stop being so stoic, Stoic” is actually a line from the movie’s sequel. In contrast, his son’s name, Hiccup, could be a nod to the character’s tendency to mess up in his father’s eyes.
Think about your character’s qualities. Could any of them (or a synonym) work as their name? Would borrowing from nature or objects serve you better? If name sites or books aren’t revealing the name, try cracking open a dictionary.
Arya and Cersei from A Song of Ice and Fire sound the same as the established Aria and Circe, differing only in spelling. Similarly, Edward Carey’s Heap House features a family full of just-off appellations, like Tummis and Pinalippy (Thomas and Penelope), the latter bearing a name that also hearkens to her tendency to needle the protagonist.
If you want to populate your story with familiar-sounding names that feel realistic but lack usage (and therefore, associations), try altering the spelling.
As a writer, how do you begin your character name search?
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on October 2nd, 2017 at 4:04 am
What a great article! I love it when character names are related to the character’s story and personality. One thing though, Percy Jackson was named after Perseus not to appease Zeus but because Perseus was one of the few Greek heroes that had a happy ending. Jason Grace, however, was named after the original Jason to appease Hera, because he was her favourite hero
on October 2nd, 2017 at 7:03 am
Great article! I usually base names on characteristics of the person, or if the character is based on someone I know I often twist their name somehow, either with similar sounding names or variations of the name. Or I just scroll through losts until I find one name that “looks good” on the character/ find a name I like to build a character around.
on October 2nd, 2017 at 7:29 am
Really well-written, enjoyable article. Thank you and bravo!
on October 2nd, 2017 at 8:35 am
Thanks for your comment! It’s been a while since I reread the books, but I believe Percy was named for both the reason you mentioned and the one in the article? Since he wasn’t supposed to exist etc
on October 2nd, 2017 at 9:26 am
@mcinkat I read the books under six months ago and I don’t remember reading they named him to appease Zeus and the wiki only says he was named for what I commented before. I haven’t found anything else, so it could be possible (I also don’t think Sally would name her son to appease Zeus)
on October 2nd, 2017 at 1:13 pm
Great article! A lot of these are how I have gone about naming, especially picking a certain letter or sound and basing the names of different groups off that. Going with things from nature or a root language is also another.
On a side note, Sally named Percy after Perseus son of Zeus because he was the only hero that didn’t die and had a happy ending.
on October 2nd, 2017 at 3:08 pm
Period-inappropriate names are one of my biggest literary pet peeves, both in historical and contemporary settings! Writers using the SSA lists for inspiration should also remember to use the years around their character’s birth, which is likely different from the year in which the story is set.
My partner writes (mostly) contemporary fiction, and her current go-to naming resource is… me! I find it tremendously fun to have her describe a character and the feeling she wants their name to evoke and then to throw out names until one “sticks.” One consideration not mentioned in the article that I often probe her on? The character’s family background and upbringing. Class, race, and location all affect parents’ name choices. Thus, I’ll suggest very different names for the child of a doctor and a senator than I would for someone who grew up in a trailer park, and I’ll make different suggestions if that doctor and senator are black than I would if they are of Asian descent.
Bella Mia Said
on October 2nd, 2017 at 4:46 pm
Honestly, I find a name that I like (usually from this website it is my fave) then figure out their whole name then when I have a prompt I pick my favorite for the story. Ex: my BEING FREE story, the protagonist’s name is Freedom.
on October 2nd, 2017 at 6:24 pm
If the character has both first and last names, I like making a “meaning phrase” between the two. The meaning from either name can come either from associations or the meaning itself. For surnames, I really like using this website: http://surnames.behindthename.com/
on October 3rd, 2017 at 2:24 am
@beynotce. This is so true, I hate when the name of a character doesn’t make sense for them. Like there is a series of books that includes a vampire born in 17th century eastern europe who has an irish name. like….it isn’t even a very like common one that you can overlook if you don’t know much about names, it is a distinctly irish surname name, and the character has siblings who do have appropriate names so it sticks out like a sore thumb. Like the author ran out of names so she just picked something out of a hat. It is so distracting.
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