Naming a character, whether it’s your protagonist or some minor supporting character, can be a difficult process. Some authors agonize over it until they find just the right one. Some just toss in a place holder until something comes to them. Either way, the names an author chooses for his characters help define them and, once the story hit publication, cannot be undone.
So how should one go about picking the perfect name for a character? Here are a few ideas...
PICK A NAME WITH MEANING
This can come in multiple forms.
First, an author can pick a name that means something very personal to him. For example, if he had an annoying neighbor named Jane growing up, he might be inclined to name his megalomaniacal school teacher Jane. If his first crush was Annie, he might choose that name for someone the protagonist once loved.
Second, an author can choose a name with a well known meaning as a representative of a concept or a trait of the character. J.K. Rowling did this sometimes in her Harry Potter series. Her main werewolf character is Remus (the name of a mythological figured raised by wolves) Lupin (a name meaning wolf). These can range from the blatantly obvious to the subtle.
Third, an author can consult the meaning of a more normal name. There are loads of naming resources online that give the meanings behind names from all around the world. This method is one of my favorites because it lets me explore possibilities I might not have considered.
Obviously, this one is related to the last. However, the last deals with names that have explicit meanings; these deal with implicit meanings. Think about it this way: If you had to pick a name that suggested a certain type of person, like someone brainy, what names would come to mind? For me, names like Eugene, Gretchen (thanks to the show Recess), and Bernard come to mind. For whatever reason, certain names have gotten linked with certain personalities in our culture. Name someone Adolf, for example, and people are most likely to think him villainous. When choosing a name, consider the implicit implication of it.
THE PHONEBOOK METHOD
This one is very simple. Get a phonebook. Yes, somewhere, they still exist. Open to a random page. Point to a random name and see if it fits the character you have in mind. Repeat until you find a satisfying name.
LOOKING TO THE REAL WORLD
Look in the history books for inspiration. If you want a man with influence, you might pick a name like Washington, Churchill, or Khan. If you want someone who’s incredibly smart, you might go to the annuls of science or academia: Mendel, Darwin, or Locke. Of course, you can go with their first names too.
Especially when writing any sort of historical fiction, it’s wise to pick names that were in common use at the time and in the region you’re writing in. For example, having a Viking named Farid would be very odd.
BASED ON REGION
Like the last one, you might pick a common name in the region of the world that your setting is located in. For fantasy and science fiction, you might pick a name from a culture that’s similar to the one you’ve invented. For this, baby name finders are very helpful. Don’t put a Fred in the middle of Japan unless you’ve got a good reason for it.
CHOOSE BASED ON THE SOUND OF THE NAME
The sound of a name can influence a lot of how it’s received. We might find it odd, for example, for a soft spoken, kind girl to have a hard sounding name like Tadita. Certainly, she could have that name, but the name is full of hard sounds which might seem contrary to her nature. Think about how a name sounds before giving it to your character.
This too can be accomplished via multiple methods.
First, you can take a real name and change it up a bit. Take Richard and alter the “h” to a “c” to make Riccard. Take the name Rose and add a letter like “l” to make it Rosel.
Second, you can give the character the very first name that pops into your mind. Or, conversely, write down a list of six names as fast as you can, roll a die and assign that one.
Third, combine existing name to make new ones. Take Jennifer and Rachel and make Jenchel or Rachifer. You get the idea.
Last but not least, use a combination of methods to come up with the perfect name for you character. No matter what you do, after all, the important thing isn’t how you got the best name, but that the name fits and you’re pleased with it.
What other methods have you used to pick a name for a character?