What’s in a Name?

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In today’s post, I thought I’d chat a bit about what goes into the selection of a character’s name. Or at least, how I select one. 😉

Naming characters is one of the fun aspects of writing fiction, but it can be a challenge. Much like coming up with a name for a new baby, I want a name that sounds good to my ear, but one that also means something to me. Sometimes, I find the perfect name right off.  Other times I search through baby name books and websites trying to find the name that fits the character I have in mind.

I like to nail down my main characters’ names earlier on. It’s difficult to change a name once I’ve gotten to know him or her. With magical characters, I often chose something that correlates with their talent. It can be the meaning of the name, the sound of the name, or both. Era is derived from an Albanian word meaning wind, but it also sounds like the English word air. Rowan’s name is from a Germanic source and means red. It is also the name given to the red-berried rowan tree. In European folklore, the rowan tree was believed to be magical, and used to ward off evil. A nice match for a red-haired Fire Element who is one of the good guys.

Sometimes my characters name each other. James’s charming brothers called his new friend the Addled Alchemist, and since she’s not the sort of person to let those jerks get the upper hand, she took the name Addie.

My characters don’t always have a name when they first appear in my stories, so I’ll frequently use a placeholder. Typically, I’ll just grab a common everyday name. And the since the Final Formula is a contemporary fantasy series, I tend to leave the name as it is. I thought it logical to use names I hear in my day-to-day life, but I’ve discovered that a common name may not be the best choice.

I have had a few comments that my names aren’t unique enough, and can sometimes run together in the reader’s mind. It’s too late to fix that now, but I will add “use unique names” to the list of naming rules I’ve come up with through my writing and reading experience.

My first rule is to keep names short and easy to pronounce–even in made up worlds with made up names. I find that it throws me out of a story if I have to stop and figure out how to pronounce a seventeen letter name with weird vowel combinations. If it’s a story I’m writing, I avoid long names like the plague. I hate typing giant names over and over. (Ian’s brother is sooo getting a nickname in FF4.)

Another naming rule I try to follow is to avoid starting character names with the same first letter. If a story has a Steve, a Sam, and a Stacy, they all run together after a while. If I’m writing the story, I have a tendency to accidentally type the wrong name during the excitement of a first draft. Though I must confess that I sometimes violate this rule. Era already existed when I found Elysia, but both names were perfect for those characters, so I left them.

Finally, I try to pay attention to how a name is pronounced to avoid silly sounding alliterations or rhyming names. For example, I almost had an Owen until someone pointed out that it rhymed with Rowan. *facepalm*

Writing is an on-going learning experience, so I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list as I go along. Do you have any pet peeves about character names?

8 comments

  1. Fully agree with you about the crazy spellings & length. I don’t care what universe it is, I don’t want to try and figure out “P’lateough” only to have a description three chapters later that (according to their phonetics rules) it sounds like “Bill.” Every time I read it I’ll hear Plato in my head and get annoyed. >.<

    • Please tell me that wasn’t a real example. o.O
      English phonetics rules are crazy enough. I can’t imagine making up my own, lol.

  2. I despair of fantasy books with long made up names I can’t pronounce. Nothing drives me out of a story quicker than that. Nice to hear about the progress on the novella!

    • When I encounter characters with long complicated names in a story, I tend to rename them in my head using the same first letter in the long name. Suddenly I’m reading high fantasy populated by Bob, Dave, and Pat. Probably not the feel the author was going for. 😛

  3. I follow the same rules–if I can’t pronounce it in my head, it’s a no go. Now, I have found myself in the habit of four-letter names: Matt, Will, Ella, Penn, Mike, Dani, Lexa, Jole, etc. Lately, I’ve tried to pay more attention to that, but alas, two of the main characters in the current MS are Zoey and Luke, with supporting characters named Tina and Dora. No idea why.

    • Heh, I never noticed the four-letter names, but I’ve honestly never mixed up any of your characters (even Matt and Mike). Probably because you do such a good job with characterization. (Of course, now I’m going to totally see the four-letter names. Which I guess is better than four-letter words. We’ll leave those for James’s brothers. 😉 )

  4. Let me throw a wrench in your newly revised naming rules and say that I actually like that your names (for the FF series, at least) are ‘normal’ sounding everyday names. It might be b/c the world of FF is supposed to feel normal, but even in stories where we’re obviously not in Kansas anymore, I find that I prefer common names over ‘unique’ ones, because it lets me discover the character for who they through their words and deeds rather than feeling imposed upon by a naming scheme of the author.
    This last statement, of course, sounds like it’s the antithesis of your entire post since you’ve just gone and explained to us in detail your naming scheme for even those normal sounding ones, but I was referring more to the (initially) jarring impact that a ‘unique’ name has in my mind rather than alluding that normal names are chosen at random out of a hell dimension. 🙂

    • Well, I’m certainly not going to complain about someone liking the normal names. 😉 I guess where I was going with that was more my lack of thought into the selection of some names. Take James’s brothers for example. I must admit that I didn’t expect them to have the roles they ended up having, but I do wish I had put a little more effort into selecting names that had more of a “hunter” vibe. But I see your point, too, and I do like the idea that the character himself defines who he is rather than letting his name do it for him. Good thought.

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