CHARACTERS: How to Name and bring them to Life

a group of people needing personal names

To bring your character to life, they will need a name. Make sure you choose their name carefully to help them grow and develop. But how do you choose the right name?

  • Match the personality of your character with a particular name
  • Or their jobs. Does a sound like a cop or a hairdresser?
  • Somebody who you based a character on.
Naming a character is an important decision for you, and you may find as your character grows you’ll change their name to suit how they’ve developed. Remember if you have multiple characters try not to use similar sounding names. Don’t use the same initial either, so as not to confuse your reader.

Naming characters: 5 steps to finding fictional character names.

Naming characters in your novel - tips from Now Novel

Step 1: Think about how each primary character’s name relates to your story

Female character name inspiration - 40 women's names

Character names from classic literature teach us useful lessons in how to choose fitting or even clever names for characters. Many of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, contain aptly named characters.In Twelfth Night, for example, the shipwrecked Viola dresses as a boy to live incognito in the Dukedom of Illyria. The name ‘Viola’ is fitting for multiple reasons. For one, music is a running theme throughout the play (the opening line being ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’) Further, the viola in the string instrument family resembles a violin but is bigger and deeper in range than a violin but smaller and higher than a cello. This in-between character is a good parallel for Viola’s in-between gender performance as she pretends to be male in order to find opportunities that would otherwise be denied to her.

There are many ways your characters’ names can resonate with your story. For example, a character’s name can be:

  • Paradoxical or contradictory: A large, gentle giant of a man has the surname ‘Little’
  • Descriptive: Names can describe aspects of your characters. For example, the tomboyish ‘Jo’ (short for Josephine) in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women goes by a truncated name that fits her gender non-conformity

To find a fitting name, think about each character’s arc and any story detail that might supply a fitting or clever name.

Step 2: Make lists of first names and their meanings

Name meanings often supply useful underscoring for character developments. The name ‘Felix’, for example, comes from a Roman cognomen (the third part of a Roman name), meaning ‘lucky’ or ‘successful’. This would be a fitting name, then, for a character whose story arc shows him rising to success with the help of great luck.

Behind the Name is an excellent resource for finding names for your stories that have useful associations.

Step 3: Think about surname meanings when naming characters

Cultures throughout the world have many fascinating naming traditions. In Sweden, for example, patronymic surnames based on the father’s first name became permanent family names in the 19th Century (for example ‘Karlsson’ or ‘Karl’s Son’).

In England, Germany and other countries, surnames based on professions are also common. Because sons often followed in their fathers’ footsteps professionally, occupational surnames (Smith, Potter, Baker or Hawker) often stuck. A surname can thus suggest your character’s ancestral history. Tom Sawyer in Huck Finn would have come from a woodcutter lineage – a fitting name for a child who spends most of his time adventuring in the outdoors.

Step 4: See how other authors choose names that fit genre and character type

naming character - 40 men's name ideas - Now Novel

Genre does have some impact on choosing character names. In a category romance, you’re not likely to find a name like fantasy author Tolkien’s creation, ‘Galadriel’. Romance novels typically favour standard names that suggest desirable traits in lovers: Sophistication, strength, beauty, cuteness, and so forth. The diminutive-sounding ‘Allie’ of the female lead of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook is one example. In fantasy, names often reflect a character’s tribe or race.Tolkien, with his background in linguistics, was a master of highlighting his characters’ different backgrounds and group belongings via their names. The British, ‘ordinary’ first and last names of the hobbits from the Shire (‘Sam’; ‘Baggins’) contrast with the more mythical, elevated-sounding names of the wizards, for example (‘Gandalf’; ‘Saruman’).

In literary fiction and theatre, we often find names that give clues to a character’s personality or fate (for example, the masculine Jo March in Little Women).

To find names fitting your genre, rifle through some of your favourite novels and look at the names authors give. Take notes. Are they standard, common names, or more obviously invented? If they seem fitting, why? Apply the insights you gain from this exercise to your own character naming.

Step 5: Use a random element to generate a list of character names

If you’re stuck for good surnames, a public phone directory is a useful, alphabetically arranged source. Open your phone directory to a random page and read whatever name your finger lands on. Make a list of last names that capture your attention.

Besides using physical resources to find names, try using online name generators and combining different results. This name generator lets you choose how many given names to include (first and/or middle and/or last), along with the gender and national origin of the name – useful for naming a multicultural story’s cast.

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