What’s In a Name? The Art of Naming Your Characters

A friend of mine asked me yesterday how I come up with the names for my characters. That’s a great question but not necessarily the easiest to answer.

For me, naming my characters is one of the most difficult parts of writing. And my process, such as it is, varies from project to project.

In my early days of writing, long before I ever wrote anything worth publishing, naming the characters was a rather straightforward process. I’d write down a list of potential names then randomly cross off the ones which brought back bad memories.

That girl used to pick on me during recess. He may have been one of the stupidest people I’ve ever met. She flirted with my boyfriend in college. 

Once I eliminated those bad apples from the list, then I’d pick my favorites and begin writing, assigning names to each of the characters in turn. The process was more akin to dealing a deck of cards than anything else. I didn’t say it was a good method, but it was at least a beginning.

Thankfully, I’ve evolved far beyond that.

Now when I write, I’ll try to get a deeper connection to the character I’m working with. Where are they from? When were they born? What is their personality like? Are they shy, outgoing, intelligent, scatterbrained, funny, or a bit nerdy? Do I want to convey a hidden meaning in their name that addresses a specific personality trait and if so, will that trait be overtly addressed during the unfolding of the story or will it be something that only I know?

Take Maggie Arnet and Carmen Peterson, the two main characters in The Face in the Mirror. For Maggie, I worked up a full Myers Briggs personality profile and printed off a complete list of the traits she would normally display. Additionally, I played with several different names to find the one that could easily work with the various nicknames she was given during the book. In the end, Maggie worked best for that character and seemed to set the mood that I was going for.

Carmen, on the other hand, presented a unique challenge. I had already finished about 2 1/2 chapters with the character using a completely different name. During that initial draft, she was named Allison which wasn’t working for her personality. I actually conducted an unofficial survey on Facebook and offered to name a character after the person who gave the best answer to the question. At the time, I was looking for the name of a minor character. A friend from high school, Carmen, won the Q&A and I immediately changed the name of the main character without a moments hesitation. The name fit like a glove.

For me, it’s important to find a name that will enhance the reader’s experience rather than draw away from it. What I mean by that is I don’t want the reader to be so focused on how odd the name is or how to pronounce the name and to lose sight of the story that’s developing. I want to build a complete person in the reader’s mind. I want there to be a continuity there.

Finding names now is so much easier than it was in years past. We have at our fingertips a wealth of resources. Facebook is a phenomenal source. What age group are you looking for? Young 20s? Great! Find anyone on your friends list in that age group and sift through their friends of the same age. You may not find the perfect name for a main character but you will find a host of names for supporting characters to use throughout your book. Looking for the most popular girl’s names from 1955? A quick Google search will yield a plethora of sources for you to delve into. That same search will also provide the meanings and origins of the names in question. I even used IMDB when choosing the names in Beneath the Mulberry Tree.

One word of caution, I’m very careful to avoid naming characters directly after people I know. Carmen was an exception and I told my friend well in advance that I would be doing that. I was also pretty far into the character development before that name switch took place. For me, I don’t want to name a character after someone I know very well and then begin to see that character as the person I know. I want each character to be his/her own unique self with their own individual idiosyncrasies.

And lastly, we all have a few names that are just our favorites to say for whatever reason. I personally love the name Rupert. I sounds so delightfully British and upper crust. I’m going to use that one somewhere but haven’t found the right place for it. I have a vague idea but alas nothing concrete as of yet.

Thanks for a great question. Hope this helps to shed a bit a light on my process.

Happy Reading!!

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