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Tips for Naming Characters

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May 13, 2013 by kristin

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I bought my first baby name book at age 14 from a mall bookstore and carefully explained to the disinterested clerk that I was buying it not because I was pregnant but because I was a WRITER.

Back then, I spent a lot more time perusing the baby name book and making lists of potential characters than actually writing stories about any of them. My search for the perfect name was partly just another way of procrastinating, the way even now I suddenly feel an urgent need to unload the dishwasher right about the time I should be sitting down to write or work.

But naming was also an obsession in its own right. When we were in high school, my sister and I invented a The Game of Life-style board game, Rad or Bad, the object of which became acquiring as many children as possible and naming them things like Heidi Francesca and Fallon Greer. As an adult, I enjoyed regaling people with facts about modern naming trends, and when I became pregnant with my actual children, I drove everyone around me crazy with my constant yammering about choosing their names.

Now I’m finished naming children and – for the time being – pets, but lucky for me, I’m still a writer. That means I never have to stop naming people, and all the naming knowledge I’ve accumulated never has to go to waste. And lucky for you, I’m happy to share!

So how do you know you’ve found the right name for your characters? It’s a lot like naming children, especially for your protagonists. Ask yourself these questions:

Does the name turn people off?

When naming real children, we tend to worry whether we’ll choose a name that will get our kid beat up on the playground. As authors, we might not worry so much about characters’ names because we’re the ones who choose whether they are picked on or worshiped, or just ignored.

Your characters may not have to attend elementary school, but they do have to pass the same tests. Could you yell it across a playground without feeling embarrassed? If you told your mother – or an agent – the character’s name, would she sneer subconsciously before recovering and saying, “Oh … that’s nice.”?

In the first draft of The Girl in Lilac and Gray, several beta readers mentioned they HATED a particular character’s name, and it made them hate the character even though he was actually one of the good guys. I listened and changed it! Also, the hero of my story is based on a real guy with a not-very-heroic name. I changed that, too!

Is the name easy to pronounce, spell and remember?

I’m not saying your character’s name should be popular. Maybe your character is an outcast, and having an unpopular name is part of what makes him who he is. But that name should still be one people won’t forget even if it’s not mentioned much, should be distinct from the others in the story so the reader doesn’t lose track of everyone, and it should be fairly straightforward to pronounce (because there are few things more irritating to a reader than not knowing how to pronounce a character’s name). 

Don’t forget to say your character’s name out loud. I can’t tell you how many baby names I loved until I practiced saying, “Hey, so and so, stop jumping on the bed!”

Is it period and/or age appropriate?

Being a name obsessive, I can spot – and be irritated by – a name anachronism a mile away. I hate it when an adult in a contemporary book/TV show/movie has a name currently popular for babies. Now certainly, there are cases like that in real life, but they’re very unusual. Most of the top 10 names for babies born right now were nearly unheard of when their moms were born.

The good news is it’s really easy to find names that are appropriate for the year your character was born. In the United States, the Social Security Administration maintains a name web site, where you can type in any year from 1880 to the present and find a detailed list of baby names in order of popularity. Or you can input a given name and see its popularity over time. The Baby Name Wizard blog also has an excellent tool for tracking popularity of a given name over time (also perfect if you’re looking for new ways to procrastinate).

If your story is set before 1880, census records (of which there are many available online for free) are also a great way to browse for period-appropriate names. The Girl in Lilac and Gray is set during the Civil War in Cahawba, Alabama, so I went to the 1860 census records from the actual town and pulled several character names from there.

Of course, there are always exceptions that prove the rule, and some names work better out of time than others. For example, Bella Swann – when Bella would’ve been born, her name wasn’t the juggernaut of popularity it is today, but it was still a classic name in use for hundreds of years. My protagonist is based on a girl who was nicknamed Belle … in the 1860s.

Anyone else have some naming suggestions? What’s your fool-proof method for picking names? Or is it more about gut feeling?

Edited to add:

If your writing is set in the near future, you can also read the Baby Name Wizard blog to learn about naming trends of the past and extrapolate them to the future. Unlike fashion in clothes that tends to cycle around every thirty years or so, parents of the present day tend to like names that belonged to their great-grandparents’ generation. So if you’re writing about people living in 100 years, you might use names that are popular for babies today!

 


1 comment

  1. JW Troemner says:

    These are some great tips~

    You’re not the only one who’s been drowning in baby name books and sites since childhood. Though it seems a few sites have caught on– Babynames.com has a ‘for writers’ section, and behindthename.com has tools like theme names and such, that very likely were created with people like us in mind.

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About Kristin

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Kristin L. Walters is the author of YA historical novel THE GIRL IN LILAC AND GRAY. She blogs about writing, Southern women's history, Victorian photographs, old houses and vintage fashion.

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