How to choose character names: A #SecondThoughts list

The name is the thing, and the true name is the true thing.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Rule of Names, 

Some stories dealing with a rite of passage will show a character shedding a ‘child name’ and choosing their adult name.  Some have characters who are ‘named’, they are champions, with an appropriate nickname which is as much a part of them as anything else.  Others, speak to the need to hide your true name, as this can give a wizard control over you…

Choosing a name can be a minefield.

I suppose really this post should be called ‘How I choose character names’, really, but since I’ve seen a couple of writers talking about how difficult they find this process, I thought it might be worth while putting my thoughts down in one place for future use – and to remind myself when I’m in the same position, at a later date, because no matter how easy you find it on one project, you never know when the anti-muse will strike…

So here we go, seven methods for naming your characters:

  1. What do they think they’re called?  Or, the Olivander Method

“The wand chooses the wizard, Mr Potter.  It is not always clear why.”

– Garrick Ollivander

Okay, perhaps a bit of a cheat to start off with this one, but bear with me.  Sometimes the character has the most perfect name and it appears in your head and that shapes the whole story to some extent.  But sometimes it doesn’t and that’s what this article is about. The character might just be being coy in not telling you what their name is, or perhaps their name is the least important thing about them.  Don’t give up though, because maybe you just aren’t listening.  There are various things that you could do to help with this.  Leave it alone, it will come in due course.  Or perhaps you could take a more direct approach and try lucid dreaming.  Or sit down and have a conversation with them.

2) Name them after a friend (or enemy) or relation.  Or, the Haven’t I met you somewhere before? method.

This one needs some care: there are all sorts of stories about writers putting people they know into stories, one way or the other.  And the aftermath when said person finds out and confronts the writer… But there is lots of great inspiration to be had just looking around.

3) Keep a notebook, just for names. Or, the Saving This for A Rainy Day method

“Watching people is a good hobby, but you have to be careful about it. You can’t let people catch you staring at them. If people catch you, they treat you like a first-class criminal. And maybe they’re right to do that. Maybe it should be a crime to try to see things about people they don’t want you to see.”

Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Building on (2), whenever you are out and about, keep your ears open and note down any interesting names that you come across.  Coffee shops are particularly good places for this, because you’ll probably hear a few orders called out, and one or two might be sufficiently unusual to provide inspiration.  Names also crop up on the news, and so on, or you could do a JK and look out for unusual place names.  I’ve driven past Flitwick several times.

4) Consult a baby book.  Or, the Hit the Books method.

It’s not just expectant parents that delve into baby naming books or websites, and you shouldn’t feel weird borrowing a book from the library for reference purposes.  My go to is actually a website though.  I can’t remember when I first came across Behind The Name, but it has been a stalwart over the years.  The advantage to a web based resource, and my focus here is very much on BTN, is that it is extremely easy to search if you are looking for something particular, such as an Afrikaan’s girl’s name, or to browse if you’re just looking for inspiration.  You can also look at the stats and find out what were popular names in any given year and indeed to some extent by country.

5) Choose a name based on a hidden meaning.  Or, the ‘Your Fate Lies Before You’ method.

“Jason scratched his head. “You named him Festus? You know that in Latin, ‘festus’ means ‘happy’? You want us to ride off to save the world on Happy the Dragon?”
Rick Riordan, The Lost Hero

I will be honest, and say that this is actually one of my favourite methods.  I love thinking about where names come from and what they mean, with the name being a hidden clue or Easter egg as the story unfolds.  I find Behind The Name very useful for this, because you can both check out the meaning of a particular name and search based on a desired definition (which will give you options from different cultures.

6) Look around the room you’re in and pick something. Or, the ‘What Would a Superstar Do?’ method.

Actually, that’s perhaps a little harsh, but it is certainly true that there are some…interesting…erm…non-traditional names that have been bestowed on the off-spring of the rich and famous – although perhaps it is just that we notice these more because the rich and famous make the news and the poor and unknown do not…

7) What are their parents like? Or, the ‘Blood is thicker than water’ method.

For some this might be a level of background story that you are unwilling to get into, especially if this a short piece, but why not think about what the characters’ parents are like?  What sort of name would they choose?  In ‘The Great Gilly Hopkins’, Gilly is actually short for Galadriel, because Gilly’s mother was a more than a bit of a hippy.  Similarly, in Good Omens, the Them have a range of names that map to what their parents are like.  Adam is the one that is perhaps the most obvious example in some respects (and is someone with significant meaning  in his name, although this is not so much hidden in plain sight as used to beat the reader round the head with), but Pepper (Pippin Galadriel Moonchild – Gilly on steroids, although Pepper’s Mother gave up on the lifestyle fairly quickly and returned to live with Pepper’s grandparents), Brian, and Wensleydale are very much the products of their parents.

In Andrew Cartmel’s Vinyl Detective series, one of the main characters is Nevada Warren.  There is a running joke of people asking her if she’s named for where she was conceived á la Brooklyn Beckham, but she is at pains to point out that it means ‘snow, and is one of  the most beautiful words in any language’.  (Apologies if that quote isn’t quite right.  The sentiment is correct, but I don’t have the book to hand).

So there you go.  Choosing the right name for your characters is important, and not always the easiest of tasks.  I’ve been very restrained and not given you my thoughts on naming characters in F&SF settings, but I hope you’ll find this of use next time you’ve got a character to find a name for.

©David Jesson, 2020

7 thoughts on “How to choose character names: A #SecondThoughts list”

  1. Or, like e.g. Georgette Heyer you could have a browse through a gazetteer. She has some memorable names – like Crimplesham the valet in Unknown Ajax – which is a village in Norfolk, or Polyphant his arch rival which is in Cornwall.

    Personally I have often whiled away a long road trip by looking at the signposts: a favourite of mine which I think would be superb for a Victorian seedy actor/manager is ‘Burton Latimer’. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We frequently drive past one little village on the way back from the coast which has me itching to use it – Tarring Neville. Problem is, I don’t want to waste it, I’m determined to use it in something really good! 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I actually love naming characters, and use many of the methods you mention. The creepy internet algorithms started giving me ads for diapers when I was going to baby name sites too often, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great to have confirmation! Are there any methods you use that I haven’t mentioned? Those algorithms are pretty creepy, especially when you use an account on a different device and then the next time you fire up the computer the ads start adapting…


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