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Realistic Character Naming

July 31, 2011
Oh my god, I hate losing stuff.Especially important stuff.

Well, important to me, I guess.

I’ve put The Gray Regions on the shelf for awhile and have, for the moment, turned to my sci fi novel.  I try to keep two projects active at any time in case I get burned out on one, so I’m still making progress.  The sci fi has only been in planning stages so far.

And somewhere in the universe there is a text document with all of the characters’ names on it.

I have backed up all of my other notes.  I have a very solid idea of the general personality and backstory of each of the characters in my head.  But apparently I only wrote their names down in one place, and that text document has vanished.

Fan-freaking-tastic.

Naming character is kind of a big deal for me.   The name has to be just right.  Sometimes it can be a long process.  With this particular cast of characters, it had taken me awhile.  And, of course, I couldn’t remember most of the names I’d come up with.

So, yesterday, I started over.

Even if you enjoy doing something, having to do it again, especially if it’s because you lost data, is inherently going to make it less fun.  In fact, it was something like pulling teeth.  And a couple of the names I ended up with may just be placeholders.  Not sure yet if they really fit or not.  Still figuring it out.

I don’t know why naming fake people matters so much.  I guess it’s because I want them to be believable.  If I want the readers to connect to them, I should be able to connect to them at the writer.  And the name is the identifier.  I don’t know – speculation, speculation.

But I got really stuck naming two of the characters and had to to turn to my online writing group for help.  I was surprised to find that many of them actually hated naming characters, and considered themselves to be “not good at it.”

I thought that was a rather odd thing to not be good at, so I figured I’d talk about it.

First, here is how I go about naming characters.

The actual steps I take:

The first place I go is babynames.com.  There are other (better) baby naming sites, but for some reason I always just go there.  I search by gender and nationality and browse.

If I can’t find anything that way, I go to this list of names I’ve compiled.  I made it mostly as a writing resource for my online writing group, but I use it myself.

If I’m still stuck, I usually ask for friends and/or members of my online writing group to help me brainstorm.  I used to not do this, but ended up finding one of my favorite character names this way, so now I’m more open minded.

To find last names I just Google something like “common US surnames” or whatever I’m looking for.

I have also, in the past, used such sites as Seventh Sanctum for naming side characters.  I have also resorted to looking at Facebook friends and friends of friends for inspiration.  (Shh, don’t tell anyone).  And it’s been recommended to me to find names by wandering graveyards.  That’s a bit morbid for my tastes though, but, whatever floats your boat.  If it works, it works.

But that’s just the technical stuff.

This is the advice I follow when picking names:

I try not to use too many “uncommon” names, and even fewer “unique” ones.  This is all about believability.  I try to keep it realistic.  This isn’t to say all of my guys are named stuff like Steve and Fred.  I just try to pay attention and make sure that everyone doesn’t sound like they’re right out of a Victorian-era vampire novel or they were raised by hippies/super-trendy artistic folks who like to think “out of the box.”  Take Harry Potter, for example.  For every unique name, there’s a common name, just about.  Sure, you’ve got “Hermione,” “Sirius,” “Remus,” “Neville,” “Severus,” but you’ve also got “Harry”, “Ron”, “Fred”, “George,” “Ginny,” and so on.  And Rowling has a pretty darn good excuse for giving folks unique names.  Magical secret society of wizards and whatnot.  Just saying.

It should also be noted that people do not get to name themselves (unless, for some reason, that’s how it works in your society).  Sure, your fourteen year old girl character would love it if her name was Alexis or Lily.  But her parents named her.  A lot of amateur writers name their characters names they wish they had themselves.  I personally don’t find this very realistic.  I mean, ok, it’s all right to do it sometimes, but really?  People are generally stuck with what their parents named them.

This also means that names chosen because their name meanings represent the character are generally pretty unrealistic too.  Unless your world has some magical way of predicting personality, chances are your character’s parents totally didn’t know how their kids were going to turn out.  You know, like in real life.  You can still do this if you want to, but just keep it in mind.

I also think nicknames are used way too often in stories.  This includes codenames (but doesn’t include stuff like “Jim” or “Tommy” for “James” or “Thomas”).  If life were like literature, every secret agent would be known as Raven or Shadow or Silver Wolf or some crap like that, and hardly anyone in high school would go by the name their parents gave them.  Less is more, folks.

Also, keep in mind ethnicity/culture/family background.  Nowadays there’s a pretty fair amount of cultural diversity most places you go.  I suppose this is more about character background and development, but it is also a point to make with names too.  Your character from Small Town, USA may look like a typical Caucasian youth, but perhaps his family is from Russia or Germany or France.  His name may reflect that.

Of course, this is all assuming you’re using a fairly realistic setting.

The Gray Regions, my fantasy novel, is set in a world of my own design.  Everyone has their own way of coming up with fantasy names.  Here are the rules I follow:

1. Names from the same culture should generally sound like they all come from the same language.
2. Names generally vary in complexity.  I make sure to give each culture their own version of “John” and “Sam” in addition to the more elegant-sounding names.
3. I personally rarely use apostrophes in names.  I just feel like it’s overdone and I prefer my names to be pronounceable for the bulk of my readers.

So, things to remember:

Just because you can write whatever you want and you may use writing as your escape from reality, if you want your readers to actually buy what you’re selling them, you need to be at least fairly realistic.  Actually, it is my belief that no matter how fantastical your story is, you should try to add an element of believability wherever possible.  And while names may seem like a small thing, they actually can say a lot about your world and are often your readers’ first look at your characters.

When you’re creating characters, you’re creating “real” people.  They may just be your fantasy creations, but if you want readers to relate to them, they need to feel real.  Name them keeping this in mind.

Lastly, back up all of your notes.  Like, five times over.  Seriously.  Losing data sucks.

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From → General Advice

3 Comments
  1. Kira permalink

    This is really good advice. And now I know exactly where to go when I need to find character names. It’s probably my weakest point (I tend to use temp names for a long time before finding a good name that actually sits well with me) so this has helped a lot. I also agree with you that I wish people would factor their characters’ parents into their names a bit more. I think things would come out more realistically.

    Good blog post! I can’t wait to read the next one (:

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