Naming Your Fictional Character
by Linore Rose Burkard
Do you struggle to find the right name for a character when writing? Is there such a thing as a "right" name? And if there is, how do you know when you've found it?
Here's my personal take on these questions, as well as some of my favorite ways to find names when I need them.
First of all, I think most writers do struggle at times with naming one or more characters. If you've never struggled with this, be grateful. If you have, it probably means that you had a good idea about the sort of character you were naming, and you were smart enough to recognize that not just any ol' name would do.
When I am in need of just the 'right' name for a character, I usually use a stand-in or temporary name until I find the right one. (The temporary name isn't important, so use whatever you like, but I would avoid going with "Character A" and "Character B"--these are cardboard-flat names and won't help you envision your character at all.) If you get really stuck on what the "right" name should be, it may help you to do some further brainstorming about that character. The better you get to know this person, the easier it will be to settle upon a name that feels right.
One of my tricks is to search catalogs with lots of models (both male and female) until I find a face that really matches my idea for a person. Once I have a face, I can usually decide upon a name. Some writers use baby name books, but I don't find these helpful until I have a face in mind, first. I also find that movie credits sometimes contain wonderful names. I never borrow anyone's full name, but I find both a first name and a surname that I like, and combine them to get that "just right" name for my character.
Each writer really needs to find what works for them.
Secondly, is there such a thing as a right or wrong name? Again, this is partly subjective, but in some cases, such as with historical novels, it is more a matter of being period-correct.
Some things to consider when choosing a name are:
- Will it make the reader stumble each time they encounter it? Some historical novelists choose names that are period-correct but impossible to pronounce unless you "know" that period. Don't make reading your book a chore! Find a name that is both correct for the time and place of your novel, while also going easy on readers. If you must use an obscure name, or one that has an obscure spelling, use another character to let us know exactly how the name should be read.
- Check that the name was in existence for the period you are writing in. Many authors check to see if the name was popular during a given period, but this is not necessary in many cases. The fact that it existed is technically all you need to know; however, when naming a Puritan, you wouldn't want to try something like "Crystal" when names such as Mary, Patience, and Charity were really the vogue. If you were trying to emphasize the singularity of a character, the difference between him and her and the average person of the world they live in, then a very different-sounding name might be just right, however.
I'll never forget this lesson from T.S. Eliot: He wrote a heart-tugging poem called, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Say that name aloud! It is anything but romantic, anything but what one would associate with a love song, and the poem indeed conveys Prufrock's utter inability to "sing" one, even when opportunity and desire are there. Eliot named this character carefully. The awkward name emphasizes the pathos of the character. Can you do this in your fiction?
It's not by accident that romance writers try to choose pretty or exotic or smooth-sounding names for their heroes and heroines. Give a girl a pretty name, and it's easier to see her as attractive. Give a hero a strong name, and it's easier to see him as strong. Even a hero, however, can have a "wrong" name and triumph anyway, when it's part of their appeal (such as in the Johnny Cash song, " A Boy Named Sue").
Interestingly, you might want to choose the name for your villain as carefully as for the hero or heroine. A villain often disguises him or herself as a hero or heroine, at least for some portion of a book, and until they are found out, a beautiful name will go far to fool the reader. Conversely, an uncertain name, one that is not particularly evocative or attractive (think: Clark Kent) can be used to de-emphasize the real hero or heroine until they are revealed for their true colors later in the book.
You shouldn't need to obsess over naming a character, and only historical novels can objectively be accused of having a "wrong" name, anyway--either for their time or place.
Above all, have fun naming your characters! Find a method you like, whether it be an internet search, a baby-name book, movie credits, or any other source, and have at it. Experiment with different names for the same character if you're just not sure, and see what sits best with you. Eventually, you will find the "right" name for each character, and your book will be stronger for it.
BIO-LINORE ROSE BURKARD
Ms. Burkard's novels include Before the Seasons Ends, The House in Grosvenor Square, and The Country House Courtship. Her stories blend Christian faith and romance with well-researched details from the Regency period. Her books and monthly newsletter captivate readers with little-known facts, exciting stories, and historical insights. Experience a romantic age, where timeless lessons still apply to modern life. And, enjoy romance that reminds us happy endings are possible for everyone.
Publisher's Weekly affirms, "Ms. Burkard's command of period detail is impressive, evident in material details, but also in dialogue. Her novels even help non-Regencyphiles learn the difference between ladies' pelisses and spencers...On the whole, it's a tasty confection."