Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Choosing Names for Your Characters

by Jill Williamson


Since I talked about pronouncing names last Friday, it got me thinking about how to choose good names. I'm pretty sure I've talked about this some before, so I thought I'd take it a bit deeper.

I find names in baby name books and websites, in old telephone books, on Facebook, on team rosters, from maps.

I've  also combined two names to make something new. Emily and Grace become Emilace. Donald and Christopher make Donopher. Kind of fun.

Or I've made up one on my own, or tweaked one I sort of liked. For example, I came up with the name Dasia from somewhere, and I kind of like it. But what if I messed around with it a bit?

Dasia ... Dasiel ... Dasielle ... Rasielle ... Raselle

I think I like Raselle better.

And what about surnames or last names? I've used some of my tricks from above to find last names (internet, phone book, Facebook, rosters), but if we're talking fantasy novel, I suggest a little more creativity.

You need to think about this world you're creating. What Earth date does it parallel? And how were names chosen then? Look back in time a bit.

Old Testament-style
People named their children whatever words they felt at the child’s birth. Abraham named his son Isaac, which means “laughing one.” And when Rachel was in difficult labor, she named her boy Benoni, meaning “son of my sorrow.” Yet after her death, Jacob renamed him Benjamin, meaning “son of my right hand.” Ben means “son of” in Hebrew. Bat means “daughter of” in Hebrew. You can use that in your fantasy novel. I did with the "mi" meaning "son of" in Jax mi Katt.

Find more examples from different countries in this brief history of surnames. It's really short.

Back then, names were also nouns, adjectives, or verbs, alone or combined, or even phrases. In Gaelic, Berach meant “sharp,” Ruadh meant “red,” Aisling meant “dream” or “vision,” and Fechín meant “little raven.”

Names were also dithematic, which means that they were formed of two parts, a prefix and suffix. For example: Alfred means “elf counsel” because “alf” means “elf” and “rad” or “red” means “counsel.” Check out this list on Wikipedia about German names. You can choose any two elements on the list and combine them to get a name. And then you’ll also get a meaning.  Look at the examples column in the center to see examples. Here are a few more I made up: Remwulf (PeaceWolf), Ernswint (HonorStrength), and Deganstan (WarriorStone).

Theonym, which comes from the Greek theos (god) and –onym (name), was a popular name construction in Norse times. Ex: Thorburn (Thor’s bear) and Thorleif (Thor’s descendant). If you have a god or gods in your novel, you could name characters after them.

After Christ’s death
As Christianity spread, trends developed to name children after martyrs (Stephen, Andrew, William, Dietrich, Agnes, Lucy, Cecilia) saints (Patrick, Therese, Francis, Clare, Christopher), or historic people of the Bible (Mary, James, Peter, Ruth, Naomi, Simon, and Benjamin). Are there martyrs, saints, or famous kings or warriors in your novel? Why not name a character after one?

Historically, bynames were literal descriptions of a person. This could involve one’s father’s name, for example, William had a son and named him Edward. So Edward's full name could have been: Edward William, Edward William’s, or Edward William’s son. See how that works? You could do that in your fantasy novel.

Bynames could also involve the place a person was born or an occupation. For example, our Edward might be called Edward William’s until he’s a man, then he moves away from Harenton, the town he grew up in, and becomes an apprentice at a smithy. The people in his new town call him Edward of Harenton. And once he completes his training and becomes a master blacksmith, he might be called Edward the Smith. You could TOTALLY do that in your story.

Some other popular names that came from occupations: Abbott, Archer, Baker, Brewer, Carpenter, Farmer, Farrier, Potter, Weaver, Taylor, Thatcher, Smith, Swain (a swine herder), Weaver. There is a big, long, cool list here.

And perhaps Edward’s father William still lives in the same house he grew up in, a house in a glen in the middle of a forest, so he is called William Forestglen. Some modern surnames that developed in such a way are: Atwater (at the water), Beckham (home by the brook), and Hill (hill).

Bynames might also be names of status or nicknames. Here are some examples to inspire you:
Marcus the Giant
Charles the Baron
Edward the Wifeless (Poor Ed!)
Mary Burned the Barn (Forever forced to live with the memory of her greatest blunder.)
Richard has Twelve Sons (I think someone is bragging.)
Bart Full of Ale (Oh, dear.)
Sarah Sings All Day (I hope her voice is good.)
Daniel Cut Purse (Hmm ... Wonder why he cuts purses …)
Frank Waste Penny (That's a shame.)

And you can do other fun stuff in fantasy novels. You can create your own tricks or titles, like I did in allowing the guardians of orphaned children the give them an animal surname. Or like the Star Wars title of Darth or Jedi.

How to know if it’s the right name
Keep it simple- I know, it’s hard. But look at this list of famous characters from fantasy and science fiction literature, film, games, and television. I can pronounce them all.

Agent Smith, Albus Dumbeldore, Aslan, Bilbo Baggins, Blade, Buck Rogers, Buffy, C-3PO, Captian James T. Kirk, Chewbacca, Data, The Doctor, Ellen Ripley, Emmet Brown, Gandalf, Han Solo, Harry Potter, John Carter, King Arthur, Leonard H. McCoy/Bones, Link, Logan 5, Luke Skywalker, Malcolm Reynolds, Merlin, Morpheus, Neo/Mr. Anderson, Q, R2-D2, Randall Flagg, Spock, Starbuck, Terminator, and Yoda.

Pretty sweet, huh?

Say it out loud- Is it at all awkward?

Ask others to read it out loud- Did they stumble over it? Did they pronounce it right?

Did you avoid adding unnecessary apostrophes (Sh’mal) and diacritics (Nüélmăr)?

Google the name to see if it is already in a famous novel. If it is but it’s a different genre, you might get away with it.

Google the name to see if there might be any hidden meanings in foreign language translations or famous people you don’t want associated with your character.

Is the meaning too obvious to the reader? When you see the name Darth Sideous, it doesn't even sound nice, right? And what about Draco? If my name was dragon, I’d likely have a rep without trying. And Bella Swan has the opposite problem. It sounds too lovely, too perfect. I object to these names, Your Honor! Leading the reader. *wink*

Does the name fit your character’s age, personality, and physical description? If not, are you doing that on purpose for irony? Because naming an ugly, cruel man Christophe Darcy and a little girl Gertrude might seem off to your reader.

Consider the meaning. It can be fun to give your character a name with a meaning that adds depth to the story. I did this with Hebrew, but any baby name book and many websites will give you the meaning of a name.

Check your full character list. Do you have too many names that start with the same letter? How about names that rhyme or that have the same amount of syllables?

And if you’re totally stuck, try using a name generator. Here’s one I found for creating names for mad scientists. But you can Google anything, for example: fantasy name generator, historical name generator, fairy name generator. You’ll likely find it all online.

Here are some of my favorite links for finding names:
Unique Surnames
Fantasy Name Generator
Native American Names
Unique Baby Names
Generic English Place Names 
Germanic Names
List of Titanic Passengers 
Behind the first names, with meanings of names
Former names of islands
Finland map
Behind the surnames
Most popular surnames
List of Occupational Surnames
Medieval Surnames
Jewish surnames


Do you have any secrets for coming up with great names? How about clever tricks for surnames or titles for character's in your story?

57 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post, Jill! Helpful ideas.

    One of my WIPs is a futuristic/dystopian novel with a steampunk feel. For names, I wanted to find old-sounding names and give them a "weird" twist (the steampunk-ness). So Myrtle became Myrtis, Beulah became Eulah, Byron - Dyron, Demetrius - Metrius, etc. The novel is set in a future Britain, so I tried to make last names and place names sound like slightly weird UK names. So I have Myrtis Sterrick, Eulah Tathman, Dyron MecRae (Scottish :P)... and towns like Arheath & Wystone.

    Anywho, that's been my method for this WIP. I'm definitely going to start using your idea of combining names... I hadn't thought of that before, but I really like the idea! :)

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    1. That is brilliant, Laurie! Do you read a lot of Steampunk? I love your names. They're perfect.

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    2. Thank you so much! :D Actually, now I think of it, I haven't read any real steampunk. o.o I've read some Jules Verne and The Giver, but I don't know that either of those count... I can't think of any others I've read. =/ The dystopia is more prominent and important than the steampunk in my WIP though, and I've read more dystopian.

      But thanks again! I'm glad the names seem to fit despite my steampunk-illiteracy. :P

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  2. Sometimes my characters just TELL me their names (and I know this sounds totally weird ;p) but like for my current WIP I was writing a scene and my MC just told me that her name is Maira. (strange? I guess..)
    By the way, awesome blog! :)

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    1. I've had something similar happen, Sania! Usually I have to work for the right name, but recently I felt like a main character was Charlotte and her friend was named Miles.

      I don't share that with non writers, though!

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    2. Oh, happens to me ALL the time, Sania. But like Mrs. Morrill, I don't try to explain that to non-writers. :P

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    3. Great point, Sania. Thanks for sharing that. Steph and Amanda, you guys too.

      My writer friend and I used to introduce someone by saying, he or she was "one of us," which meant a writer. :-)

      And, Steph, my grandma's name was Charlotte. I should scan her old 40s B&W picture sometime of what she looked like at 16 so you ca see. She was so very lovely.

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    4. Of course! If u try to tell this to them they'd probably recommend you to a psychiatrist

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  3. I love using Hewbrew/Greek names in my novels. Surnames are a little harder.

    When I was reading my Bible the other day, I found some of the names from By Darkness Hid!Esek and Sitnah... :P Gen. 26:20-21

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    1. Same thing happened to me this morning. I was reading Genesis, and found Lamech's wives (Zillah and Adah) and smiled, remembering two sisters from a book I've read with those names. :)

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    2. Amanda, was that the Millie series? Based on the Martha Finley classics? I have ALL of those books. They were some of my faves when I was younger.

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    3. LOL!

      I got a few emails from readers who were terribly worried that I might at some point stone Achan to death because of the Achan in the Bible. I always said, "Nope! This is a different story."

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    4. Oh, I was reading Mark and found the name Legion and said, "That would be an awesome villain name!" : )

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    5. YES! It was, Bethany. I love the Millie series still. :D

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    6. Lol! Oh dear! That would be a terrible way for the main character to end!!!

      Ooh, ALyson. *Shiver* Legion.

      Amanda, I do too! ;)

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  4. Thanks so much! VERY helpful. I. Love. Names. One of my favorite parts about creating characters. <3

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  5. This topic has been bugging me a lot lately. I really needed this. The way I come up with names is I search through old books until I find something that clicks just right. It almost always works :)

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    1. *random moment* I love the smell of old books.

      Great idea, anon. :-)

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  6. Ms.Jill...a cut purse is purse thief :) & I loved the commentary on that section!
    I loved this whole post actually! I really like learning about the Hebrew stuff, some of those "mix & match" type tricks. I'm totally going to use some of those tricks and all of those sites :)
    Personally I don't really have any tricks (yet) I just try to kinda find a feel for a character and then half of the time I'm making up names :) I've made a bunch up but at the moment I can only think of Hianna... :/ All those fantasy name ideas where really helpful! Thank you so much for sharing! Sierra
    Keep growing beautiful!

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  7. LOL! I did know that, Sierra. I guess I didn't spend enough time on the tone in that bit of commentary. :-P

    I'm glad there was something helpful in there. I think Hianna is very pretty.

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    1. Thank you! And I adore the smell of old books :)

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  8. When I write a first draft I usually go with the first name that pops into my head. It almost always is changed a few times. I go with feeling but I think you pointed it some fun things to try. In my writing I haven't used particulary unique names. Unique names I always wonder about ( and wonder if it'd be cute or weird to name a baby) are Jubilee and Agape.

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    1. I really love names that weren't originally meant to be names. Things like planets and months and days of the week. Tuesday just screams best friend to me for some reason, and I would love to name a character Mercury. I think Jubilee is really pretty. I don't know that I'd give a real life human baby one of my strange names but I think for characters it's interesting to read. I love when authors use unique names.

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    2. Those names are great��I have a tough time changing names though because I get so attached.

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    3. Agreed. I like those names too. Fun.

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  9. There was a scene in my novella where my FMC was teaching a Sunday school class. I was excited because I could name some of the kids, but they didn't have to "grow up" with that name. I did find that a lot of them ended in the "a" sound. (Mia,Olivia, Kayla etc.)
    So, I had to rethink that. I like to find new was to spell names, but not change the way they are pronounced like my name, Alyson. I spell my FMC "Erynn" instead of "Erin" or "Eryn." Sometimes I spend a ton of time picking out a name, and other times I just pick one at random. I have been caught completely forgetting one characters name. I had to look it up : )

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    1. I forgot a character's name also, Alyson. It was funny, in a weird way.

      The worst was when I wasn't paying attention, and gave two minor characters the same name! One of them only appears in a flashback, but still, it was a bad mistake. I didn't even realize it until the first draft was finished and I was editing... *Shudders*

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    2. I've done that with last names too: )

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  10. To find names, I'll either; 1) poke around online at different name-generating or baby name sites, 2) pick a letter to start with and mush syllables around in my head, or 3) ask my fantasy-writing friend. X) HA! Well, it works well enough. ;) Or sometimes I'll have a nickname for them first, and have to work backwards to find a name. ;)

    I loved this post! I will DEFINITELY be using these tips and sites for future names! :D


    Also, as a side note: I don't know if you already have, but if you haven't, perhaps you could do a post on how to deal with loving your secondary character more than your main character.....X)

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    1. I like that idea of giving them a nickname, then trying to get a name from that. Sounds kind of fun.

      Steph has a thought on your side note. She'll be along shortly to answer. :-)

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    2. Sometimes secondary characters are easier to love because we aren't quite as close to them. (Same as how you might find your best friend's brother adorable and she thinks he's annoying.)

      If your secondary character is stealing the stage, they might need to be killed off (a la Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet) or you might just need to be more intentional about building up your main character's goal/journey.

      Or maybe your secondary character should be your main character?

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2011/01/secondary-characters.html

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    3. From Amo Libros:
      I'll have to go check that post now. What usually happens to me is that I'll be rounding out my side/secondary characters (or even another main character) and I get so involved with them that they seem to push my main character off to the side...

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  11. Ooh. I can't wait to explore those links.

    My first line of attack is my trusty "Character Naming Sourcebook." After a lot of deliberating, I made the decision to buy it two years ago and I've never regretted shelling out the $20. If that doesn't work I visit two sites I've found recently.
    http://www.behindthename.com
    http://www.babynamegenie.com/baby-name-generator/

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  12. I sometimes find names in movie credits and baby name websites. But, I normally tend to go for names that aren't supposed to be names like planets, fabrics, types of gems or rocks, and places. My WIP right now has a Mercury, a Lace, a Linden, and a Cairo. I do like the idea of putting two words together based on their meanings, so I'll have to try that. Great post Jill!

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    1. Movie credits! Great idea. I have a movie poster on the wall by my computer, and in moments of desperation when a minor character is needed, I've used names from there. I think I've exhausted the possibilities from that poster at this point, though.

      Fun ideas for names, Kaitlin. :-)

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  13. Jill, you rock. I love this article.

    And so does The Doctor. (Rocks, I mean.) :D I'm just scrolling down, reading this in my inbox, all innocent and paying attention, when all of a sudden IT'S HIM! With the screwdriver and all! And my attention was lost and I just had to pop in and say something.

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    1. I saw the Doctor and nearly squealed...love Doctor Who <3 Also great post!

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    2. You guys crack me up. Emily, I read your comment and was like, *gasp* "The Doctor read my post and loved it? Sweet!" LOL

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  14. For some reason, I've never had trouble thinking of names. The name is actually sort of the first part of the character I think of, along with a vague character sketch. Sometimes it's harder to make it sound like they all come from the same place, though, so I'll check out these sites to figure out what names from different countries sound like.

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    1. That's a good idea to get a foreign feel.

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  15. I usually go to a baby name website and look for names with meanings that describe my characters' personalities or physical descriptions or something they learn at the end of the story. I also use names that I like and seem to fit the character but don't necessarily have a meaning.
    Last names are the hardest for me to come up with. I found I somtimes accidentally use the same last name for different characters who aren't related. :p
    This post was really helpful, though. Thank you, Jill!

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    1. Glad it was helpful!

      You need an old phone book for a big city, Micheila. That helps me with creative last names.

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  16. If my character doesn't come with a name, I spend an agonisingly long time trying to find the right name! But I don't like names you can't pronounce. Tolkien is awesome, but goodness, I don't even remember who is who, let alone can pronounce them. Fantasy is awesome and all, but I'd rather read a fantasy with easy names.

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  17. Great post!! Thank you!!

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  18. I love choosing names for characters!
    Game of Thrones is a great example of fantasy names, and some of them are named after famous warriors, etc in that world, which I like. I also like how they have specific surnames given to illegitimate children, depending on where you're from - in one place, they're given the surname Snow, in another it's Stone, etc. Extra details like that are cool.

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    1. Yeahm there are some good names in there, and most of them are pronounceable. The Snow thing is what inspired me to do orphan surnames the way I did in my book.

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  19. I haven't gotten the chance to comment in a while, but when I saw this post referenced both Doctor Who and The Matrix, I knew I'd have to say something. This post was really helpful without those, but seeing them made my day. And kind of made you my hero.

    I love how The Matrix had unusual names--Neo, Cypher, Switch, Dozer--that weren't unheard of, but typically aren't thought of as names. I feel like they fit the cyberpunk thing really well. And I didn't realise till my second or third viewing that "Neo" was an anagram of "one," but I thought it was wizard once I noticed it.

    My favourite thing to write is superhero fiction, but I feel like it's super easy to get cheesy with the code names. I think Marvel handles it much better than DC: Gambit or Psylocke or Armor seems a lot less ridiculous than something like Power Man or Lightning Lad, but that's just me. I also like them for probably the same reasons I liked the aforementioned Matrix names. They're simple but interesting.

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    1. YES! *fist pump* I'm a hero. :-)

      Good insight about Neo, Jenna. It also means "new," which is true of his character change. Fun stuff.

      I really like X-men names, but they're Marvel.

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    2. ... but they're Marvel, so that must be why they're so cool, is what I meant by that. :-)

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  20. This is really interesting. For my dystopian names, I generally use twists on conventional names (ex: Norah to Nori). I also use names for their meanings. For example, one of my characters is named Aria, or lioness, so I made sure she had a fiery temper.

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    1. That's a good idea, Katia. I did the same with my dystopia, or I used regular names, but spelled then strangely, like Charlz.

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  21. Thanks so much! This is a great article. Normally, I just look at babynames.com or a similar website and choose names based on sound and meaning.

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  22. From Amo Libros:
    My biggest challenge is that I'm synesthetic. In this case, it means that I associate certain colors with letters, numbers, and people I know. In some ways it can make picking a name easy (I pick the name that matches the character's personality colors), but it can make things harder if said name is difficult to say, or isn't period (if I'm working on historical fiction, etc.). It also makes changing names harder. I'm going to have to check out some of these sites, maybe it would help.

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    1. That sounds tough.
      (I once read a book about a girl who hid her synesthesia...not that I 'completely' understand or anything.)
      Anyway, sometimes I just feel that a character should be named something (we'll say Nathaniel Eli) but Nathaniel Eli is written on my "names of my future children" list, and I think that would be awkward to use it.
      Usually, I get mad because I don't want to completely change the plot as the characters personality changes along with the name.

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  23. I have a city in my book where all the characters have Hebrew or Hebrew derived names such as Anna or Ellyanus, Bani and Elijah.

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Disagreement is welcome. Rudeness is not. Please be considerate of each other!