The name of the game

July 31, 2009 at 3:38 AM | Posted in Writing, Writing Advice | 9 Comments

A name can make or break a book; sometimes, the name of a character is important for their character development. Take the main character of “Avalon High” by Meg Cabot. Being called “Elle” by Will (the main guy, if you haven’t read it!) makes him stand out, because no-one’s ever called her that before. Bella Swan in “Twilight” is defined to her classmates, at the beginning, as Isabella – and only when they speak to her do they realise she wants to be called Bella.

Sometimes, character names have particular meanings or associations: Professor Sprout in “Harry Potter” has a surname which clearly denotes her field of teaching; Professor Dumbledore’s surname is an old word for “bumblebee”, according to J K Rowling, which can certainly suggest something about his nature.

Names are important; people like to empathise with characters, and if the name doesn’t fit, they can struggle. So, how do you come up with the all important name for your main character if one doesn’t immediately jump out at you? Personally, names don’t often immediately jump out at me. In the series I’m writing currently, one character – Ella – had that name from the beginning. The main character, on the other hand, was given a randomly assigned name until the perfect one – Imogen – could be found.

For me, baby naming websites are invaluable (and yes, I am sure my parents would draw some interesting conclusions if they look at some of the things saved in my favourites which are research!). The ability to search through names with lots of different criteria is very useful, but if you haven’t any ideas at all, where on Earth do you start? First, pick a letter. One that you think could go well with your main character’s surname – if they have one yet. Then decide if you want a common name or an unusual one. English, Italian, French, German – what fits in with your MC’s history? Then trawl. Write down all the ones you like, create a shortlist. If you need a surname, some websites have great categories of surname-like baby names, which are great when everything you come up with alone doesn’t sound like a legitimate surname (or am I the only one who does that?)

Personally, I wouldn’t look too hard to a meaning that fits your character; if you happen to find a name with a meaning that fits your characters personality, then great – if not, then don’t worry. After all, our parents named us without having a clue how we’d turn out, so complicated name-meanings that will only mean something to the odd person who decides to search the name after having read your book are nowhere near as important as having a name that works for your character.

Another thing to think about is whether you want to be able to shorten the name. It was essential in “Family Portrait” that the name could be shortened, as I had already worked out the situations in which it would need to be shortened, and so a name that couldn’t have a nickname – or where all shortened versions were confusing/hard to pronounce/ridiculous really wasn’t suitable.

Finally, don’t underestimate your family and friends; ask them for their favourite names – you never know, one could suit your character perfectly! So, I’ll end with a question: what’s your favourite name – male or female? Have you used it for a character?

PS. If you’re one of those people who find characters’ names just pop up in your head along with the plotline, then I’m jealous!

–Becky (AKA Beckywannacuppateani)

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  1. There are actually websites with listings of last names. That’s how most of my characters’ got theirs.

    I don’t really have a favorite name. I like Storm, but I don’t have a character named that yet.

  2. I found a huge census website that lists TONNES of last names. It’s insanely helpful, because usually I have an idea of what sort of sound I want the name to have, but I can’t come up with the exact name. So I scroll through the bazillions of names until I find one. :D
    As for favourite names, hmmm. Not sure. There are a lot of names that I like – most of which I have given to my characters. Which brings up a problem. By the time I have children (if I have children) I’m probably not going to have anything left to name them. XD

  3. When in doubt phone book! When I can’t come up with a decent last name I always consult the ever knowing phone book. I’ve also picked last names from celebrities that I really liked. For example my current MC Emma Waters gets her last name from Rodger Water’s of Pink Floyd :D

  4. I wait around for the characters to tell me their names. I waited a really long time for one guy(his name was —–) until one day Jefri showed up and waved at me. I was only angry with him for concealing his name for a while but more glad he finally introduced himself. But yes, rummaging through name sites works well. My favorite names are Owen, Merric and Emmet. The first two are currently in use. :)

  5. http://names.mongabay.com/

    That’s a great website for surnames from many different origins. If you need a certain time period, you can also check the social security website for common names by year and gender.

  6. I absolutely LOVE names. It’s almost scary. I spend enough time on baby name sites that my computer has bookmarked them for me. I couldn’t have a favorite name, because I know so many good ones.

    Personally, I find the meaning to be of great importance (The Importance of Being Ernest!). Whenever I’m naming characters, I like to scope out by meaning first and find the sound that I like from that list.

    In my current project, the origin of the name serves as a guide for the reader as to the class of the character. The beginning of the book sounds like it would be set in Venice since so many characters have Italian names.

  7. Names were always a problem for me. Knowing the character, I always get a feel for what the name SHOULD sound like but finding the perfect one is near impossible. Lately I’ve been stealing names from friends on AW. :D Except for my MC, Mari Abdo. Her full name is Photini Marissa Abdo, she’s of Lebanese decent, and there is a major parallel between her name and the story I’m sort of forming VT after.
    Favorite names? I’m Melkite-Greek Catholic so the names I come across (like Photini) may seem odd to some, but I like Philomena. I was also supposed to be named Mercedes so I have a soft spot for that. :D

  8. I LOVE naming my characters and I prefer using unique names. The list of names I have came from a previous job. I used to work the graveyard shift (4pm-2am) as a medical claims processor. It was mostly data entry work and the names I came across were on the medical forms I processed. And a lot of them were hella unique. One family actually named their kid Oreo! I didn’t write that one down, but there were others that I liked. Pretty soon, I had a nice list of both boys AND girls names to choose from.

  9. i love old fashioned and upper class English names – my favourite for a girl is Georgiana (after watching The Duchess), followed by Kitty, Cecelia, Adriana. boys names has to be Fergus, even though it is Scottish and i am totally the other end of the country from Scotland, and i have named my MC in my WIP that, even though he is Irish (i had to make his mother Scottish then ;)). After Fergus it is Sebastian, Tristram, Theo, Nathaniel.


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