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Why Do Character Names Matter?
Character name meaning varies from text to text. Some novelists imbue a name with symbolic meaning that indicates a particular type of character. The nineteenth-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was known to use names to foreshadow character traits. Examples include the foolish, hypocritical Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter and the titular character from the short story Young Goodman Brown, who represents a Puritanical mindset emblematic of a particular time period.
Other authors give less heed to symbolism when selecting the right name, but they nonetheless use names to offer clues about a character’s social status, nationality, and family heritage. In his epic novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy used character naming to differentiate between different classes of people within Russia’s complicated semi-caste system, from simple peasants to the aristocracy to military leaders.
5 Characteristics of a Good Character Name
There is no fixed formula for giving your characters a great name (or even a good name), but a memorable and interesting name will tend to have the following qualities:
- It makes sense in context. A good character name is appropriate for the location and time period of your novel, short story, play, movie, or TV show.
- It fits with the genre of your piece. For instance, the name Darth Vader might be the perfect name for a sci-fi villain, but would not fit a real-life drama set in rural Nebraska.
- It is unique. Try to avoid evoking popular names from other works of fiction. Note, however, that some authors select similar names for effect, the way that George R.R. Martin’s Samwell Tarley seems to intentionally evoke the fantasy name Samwise Gamgee from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Even Martin’s own name, with its double initials, seems to pay homage to Tolkien.
- It is appropriate for a character’s role in the narrative. The audience may be able to surmise a certain type of character by simply reading or hearing their name. Shakespeare was a master of this, assigning whimsical sounding names to jesters (i.e. Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night), unique singular names for a main character (i.e. Hamlet, Othello, and Prospero), and common names to common characters (i.e. John Bottom and Francis Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
- It’s memorable without being distracting. Readers of Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita could behold the unusual name of Humbert Humbert and know that they were dealing with a less-than-trustworthy character, yet Mr. Humbert’s odd name does not provide such distraction that a reader cannot focus on plot, backstory, and character development.
How to Name Your Characters
Some authors have an easy time concocting a new character for their stories, but they have a harder time generating new names to give such a character. Here are some writing tips to get your creative juices flowing, help you source different names, and make sure each name fits with the character you’ve created:
- Consult the phone book. Grab a random name from the phone book to get yourself started. Then feel free to tweak the real name you find to make it better match your character’s personality. Did you pull up the name Vickie Malone? If you’re developing a character proud of her social status, why not change the name to Vivien Malone?
- Grab a baby name book. Baby name books can be found in bookstores, libraries, and online. If they’re good enough for naming a real-life family member, surely they can be good enough for fiction writers seeking the perfect male or female names.
- Use a random name generator. The internet is full of character name generator websites. A simple search will bring up a slew of these and get you on your way to choosing a useful list of names to pick from. You can even use a specialized name generator, like a fantasy name generator, to help you pick a genre-appropriate unusual name.
- Pay homage to famous names from a book or movie. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, so if you want to pay your respect to a bestselling author or screenwriter, find a way to incorporate part of one of their best character names into your own work. This particularly works if you’re writing in the same genre—such as science fiction or superhero comics—as the author to whom you’re paying homage. You can even name a character after an author.
- Make use of root meanings. A name meaning can derive from its cultural roots—including Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, or any cultural background. If you research the ancient meanings of certain names, you might be able to seed ideas about your characters in readers’ heads. For instance, the Welsh god of the sea is named Dylan, so this might be a good character name for a mariner. The word linda means “beautiful” in Spanish, so it may be apt to name a gorgeous female character Linda.
- Don’t get hung up on finding the perfect name. Ultimately, audiences care far more about a character’s arc and three-dimensionality than their specific name. If you audition different names but find you’re unable to find one you truly like, insert a placeholder and keep writing. You can come back later and brainstorm similar names, or you can just let the placeholder become the final name for your character. At the end of the day, that name choice will not save or sink your manuscript; it will be a small part of a cohesive whole product.
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