Naming a character seems like the simplest thing. Just write down a name and get on with the story, right!? But all writers knows it’s so much more than that. There’s all sorts of history, character traits, background and culture that can seep through a name. So how do you how about picking one?
Plan Your Punchlines
There are plenty of writers who plan the kind of jokes that can come from a name before they really start on the character. From those jokes, they can build a backdrop of characteristic defence mechanisms and reactions.
Take for example; ‘Chandler Bing’ in Friends. The more you think about the name, the more ridiculous it sounds. And yet, it works perfectly for the character because he coats everything in cynicism and wit (as you would if your name was a combination of a candle maker and a future search engine, I suppose). Another example is ‘Annyong’ from Arrested Development, a Korean boy who is adopted by the Bluth family and – as far as the other characters know – spends all his time repeating his own name. In actual fact, the word ‘Annyong’ means ‘hello’ in Korean and is a joke on the Bluth family’s terrible communication skills.
It’s safe to say that if you name your character Hermione, Ron or Neville in the next ten years, people are going to have an immediate psychological response. Unless your readers were brought up in a shoe box, they’re likely to think of Harry Potter and your fresh new character will immediately be tarnished. The same goes for Lord Voldemort, Dumbledore and Snape, by the way…
Flick Through Your Yearbook
Brits are unfortunately deprived of this great tradition, and I imagine there are a fair few other countries who don’t have these either. So, if you’re American, dust off the old yearbook and start flicking through pages of vaguely recognisable names and face. If you’re not American, you’re going to have to conduct an extensive facebook search. Do I have to? Yes, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to snoop through the online lives of people from your past. But I would never do that! I know, none of us do that in our spare time but I’m afriad your going to have to do it just this once. Oh, okay.
Make A Collection
I collect unusual name. I have notebooks full of them… And so far I have got names from saints, place-names, war memorials, gravestones. I just collect them, I am so interested in names.” – J. K. Rowling
You know when you meet someone who has a weird name that you can hardly pronounce? Or, when someone introduces themself with such an odd name that you have to fight the urge not scream ‘that’s not a name!‘? Or, do you remember that kid in your class who always dreaded the substitute teacher getting to their name in the register? (Shout out to my main gal, Mohua!). Well, time to put those feelings of frustration into use and write them down!
Make It Pronounceable
On the other hand, you don’t want to make the name so hard that people don’t know how to say it. Though honestly, the likeliness is that no matter how easy you make it, someone will get it wrong anyway. My grandma once told me that she read an entire book where she mentally pronounced the name Penelope as ‘Penny-lope’. Who can blame her? Silly name, really. (Sorry Penelope’s!) I myself read the name ‘Siobhan’ in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime as ‘So-be-an’ rather than ‘Sher-vaun’. Yep, people are stupid, don’t worry about it.
Get Super Historical and Meaningful
The Hunger Games has tonnes of social, political themes throughout the story, and you’ll find many of the names do too. ‘Katniss Everdeen’, ‘Peeta Mellark’ and ‘Greasy Sae’ can all be explained with a little research. Miriam Krule breaks the names down into categories; “the names can be roughly divided into two groups. Characters from the poor, depleted districts are named after plants or other earthy items; those from the regal capital have a Roman influence…” You can read the rest of her interesting decipherings here.
George RR Martin, the writer of Game of Thrones, has a plethora of funky names in his work. Yet, he has still noted the struggles of coming up with names; “Coming up with the names for the characters is very tough. They can’t be too weird (with like apostrophes and stuff) and they can’t be too “real”, like Francois or Patrick or any kind of a name that is tied to a place.” Most interestingly though, there are some theories that many of the names allude to the ‘ultimate fate’ of the characters. You can read more on the theory here.
Use A Name Generator
I know what you’re thinking, this is such a cop out! Well, that’s what I thought too, at first. Then, I had a quick browse at what the Internet had to offer and it’s pretty good… There are loads of ‘character name generators’ that let you choose the nationality, historical age and species (if you’re writing fantasy) or your character. If you mix your results with some scrolling through ‘baby name sites’, you can create some great names. Just make sure you delete your internet history so that your partner/friends/parents don’t get freaked out about you having a baby.
Use Your Own History
You may have seen pictures shared that say things like find your ‘stripper name’ or ‘find your super-hero name’. They usually require you to combine your first pets name with your mother’s maiden name, or something like that. Now, I’m not suggesting that you use these specifically as the likeliness is that your character will sound like a stripper or a superhero… However, thinking of pet names, street names, school names, etc from your past can inspire some great, unique names.
This is my new favourite way to come up with names. I am a notoriously bad texter and typer so random words are thrown at me by my phone and tablet, all day long. For example, the most recent accidental name I saved was ‘Daisy Ace’ – no idea what I was trying to type.