Naming Your Characters
Maybe it’s just me, but this can be really HARD! Sometimes, a name comes to me, and it fits! It’s perfect! And in fact the character seems to almost builds itself around the name.
But other times… not so much.
And then once I get stuck on a name, it’s hard to find something that seems to fit. So what’s a writer to do?
Here’s a few tips that can help pull you out of your Naming Block:
1) Start with what… or who… you know
A common tip with writing, it can be applied to names as well. Go through a few people you know, try different versions of their names, how do they feel coming off the tongue, what do they make you think of? Keep in mind of course that not everyone knows YOUR friend George, so it can have totally different connotations for you than the general public. But I still find it a good starting place.
You can even look those names up in different languages. Perhaps there is a French version of a name you’re familiar with that will give it that perfect essence you’re looking for. Sometimes names we’re already family with give us a sense of connection to the character that’s important as the writer.
Because it’s not just the readers that have to feel a kinship, it’s you too!
2) Famous names, miss-matched.
I saw this idea on a few random websites and I thought it was a fun idea. From your most inspirational authors, political or historical figures, explorers, scientists, chefs, athletes, musicians, even sitcom or cartoon characters, write down a list with two columns: first names in one column, last names in the second.
Then mix and match!
Albert Wilde (Albert Einstein + Oscar Wilde)
Janis Curie (Janis Joplin + Marie Curie)
It’s really quite fun. And playing with the combinations really becomes a way of playing with the characters for me. It was empowering, allowing the implications of both names show through, the differences, the layers they add. While obviously, it doesn’t mean the character is just like those two people, it’s still a great creative exercise. I mean, if Janis Joplin and Marie Curie were channeled through one person, she’d be on heck of a woman!
3) Pull a map out!
Ever driven through a small town or turned onto a side street and thought… whoa, what a great name?!
If you Google just about any state, and simply pull up a map, zoom in close enough and I bet within minutes you’ll find some creative names that surprise you.
Write them down. See how they look in a sentence. Tweak them a bit. Is there a good nickname version that fits one of your characters well?
4) Geological formations or weather reports and other versions/meanings
To clarify, I’m not saying name one of your characters Sunshine or Moonbean. But look deeper and you’ll find versions that may be more fitting. If you’re looking for a “sunny” name, consider Soleil or Summer. Looking for something stormy, try Gale (means sea storm) or Raiden (Japanese God of Thunder). Steady strong and unsurmountable? Aaron means mountain of strength. Or try Montana or Montel.
Even if the readers don’t look up the meanings, (although some may know!) it does give a sense of context and implication to the names you’ve chosen.
Write these all down too, because next we’re going to…
5) Bring it all together
Mix and match isn’t just for the combination of famous names. Take your entire list and put different names together. Last names matter, even if they’re only mentioned once or twice throughout the manuscript (or even never), they can bring nuance and value to the way YOU see the character.
Names are significant. And not having the right one for any character can leave you feeling unsettled, as if the words on the page simply don’t look or sound quite right. Playing with this exercise is not only useful, but it’s fun! It gets you thinking, exploring the meaning of words and the power behind them.
And your manuscripts are worth it!
Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at www.TheJerseyFarmScribe.com where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!
Look for Erika’s articles every other Wednesday on Writing and Illustrating. Thank you Erika for another great post.