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What’s in a name? - Rules for picking names of your characters
Image credit: Photographing Travis / Flickr

What’s in a name? - Rules for picking names of your characters

Shakespere once asked “What’s in a name?” and the answer is a lot. Names are very important when it comes to developing a character in your book, so there are certain rules that should be followed to make sure you get it right.

Naming your child is a very nerve wracking experience, after all you’re determining what a person is going to be known as for the rest of their life, potentially shaping their future with just a couple of words. The same goes for naming your characters.

Would James Bond still have been such a hit with the ladies, and a successful spy to boot had he been called Geoff Ramsbottom? Would Hannibal Lecter still have been as terrifying if he instead went by Dave Smith? Could you imagine telling someone to stop being so miserly by calling them ‘a Clarke’ had Charles Dickens settled upon John Clarke for the name of his main character in A Christmas Carol?

Names for your characters are just as important in fiction as in real life, as their personality can be established before they’ve even uttered a single word.

With that in mind, how would you go about choosing the names for your characters whilst making sure they’re fit for the job? Here’s a list of dos and don’ts to get your names right.

Where to start?

Baby name books

What better place to start than the place you would if you were naming a child. Not only do baby name books have thousands of different names from all countries and cultures, but they also include the meanings of names, which is especially important for your characters. It’s no good coming up with a great sounding name for your hero if the meaning implies he’s as weak as a wet paper bag.

The phone directory

A great resource if you’ve got a great sounding surname but want to quickly and efficiently look though lots of first names to match it up with.

Film and TV credits

Thousands of people are involved in making a television show or movie, so watching the credits to the end may well give you the inspiration you’re looking for. Another bonus with credits is that nicknames are often included in brackets, giving you more ideas.

As a shortcut you could use movie sites like IMdb and look through the cast and crew lists for your favourite movie. Scroll past the list of actors and you’ll see the list of everyone who was involved in making the movie, a veritable treasure trove of names.

Cookie Beard was the name of a wardrobe assistant on The Shawshank Redemption.

Maps and travel listings

Place names already have various associations which can be drawn on to help develop the personality of your characters. Imagine a guy called John London, you’re probably picturing a smartly dressed British guy. Now imagine a guy called Jack Alabama, he’s probably not wearing a suit.

You wouldn’t want to be so obvious with your stereotypes, but enough to have some semblance to a character.

The Bible

The bible is a great tool for names, there are a lot of popular names out there that you probably wouldn’t realise are biblical but do still have some connotations.

Names like Gabriel and Eve have their obvious associations but more subtle biblical names would be Daniel, who was an interpreter of dreams and was rescued from a den of lions, and Sarah who was married to Abraham and became the ‘mother of many nations’.

What to look out for

When looking for a name it’s important to make sure that it’s appropriate. Here are some things to check for.

Get the right period

Names come in and out of fashion, and certain names can have very strong connections with certain periods of time. Make sure your chosen name is appropriate for the period you’re writing in, and doesn’t remind your readers of another age.

Get the right location

It’s important that if you’re writing a certain character to be form a certain part of the world, to get their name right. It’s no good having a protagonist who is the epitome of a Spaniard only to discover to late that you’ve given him a common Italian name.

Check the meaning

As described above, it’s important to check the meaning of a name before you commit to it. You don’t want your characters to have implied traits that aren’t relevant to their personality or go against it.

Test the pronunciation

Make sure people don’t stumble over the pronunciation of names as it can really pull someone out of a book. A famous issue was with the Harry Potter series and the character of Hermione. A lot of readers hadn’t experience the name before and didn’t know how to pronounce it. It was so much of an issue that J.K. Rowling wrote in a scene explaining exactly how to say the name.

Take into account all the players

Don’t just name your characters one by one, make sure they work in groups so they don’t get confused with one another. You could also consider associated characters having complementary names.

Don’t use real people

Whilst it’s ok to be inspired by the names of real people, don’t take their name and their character, otherwise they may recognise themselves in your writing and depending on your story could be unhappy.

When you finally arrive at a name of a major character, make sure there’s a reason behind it. There are so many lost opportunities with a name picked out of a hat, but a name with thought behind it can be very rewarding.

Let us know what you think about character names below, and be sure to sign up to our newsletter which includes tips and tricks, and special offers for our services.

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