Hannah Heath is a writer, reader, blogger, and a great friend of mine, and I have the privilege of having her write a guest post for this blog! She’s an expert at writing and this post will be her take on naming characters for stories. Her blog is Hannah Heath – Writer, so don’t forget to check it out! In fact, clicking on the link to her blog is mandatory. If you’re not even a writer or need help with names, this girl has great humor, so none of you want to miss this. Onwards!
Word nerd: a person infatuated with the written word, including, but not limited to, books, grammar, dictionaries, pronunciation guides, and foreign languages.
See also: writers, readers, weird people, people who need to find a life have awesome lives
If you’re a writer, chances are you fall into the ‘word nerd’ category. It has its uses (such as being able to write well and having the chance to explore new worlds through books), but it also has its downsides (like not being able to go on social media because people don’t capitalize after periods and it’s painful to look at).
When it comes to naming your book characters, being a word nerd is a mixed blessing. There are so many cool names and spelling variations and oh my goodness, is that a diacritical mark?! It’s hard to know where to begin…or end.
As an avid reader and writer, I’ve come across a lot of different naming techniques, tips, and tricks. Here are some pointers and things to keep in mind when choosing the name for your new character:
- Haunt Google Translate and baby name websites. Any old baby name site will do. They’re all pretty similar. I have this theory that baby name sites get half their traffic from pregnant women and the other half from writers. Google Translate is also fun because you just find a word that personifies your character, type it in, and then convert it to a random language. Maybe move some letters around or make it easier to pronounce, and voila! You have a character name. Behind the Name is also pretty epic. It will give you name meanings, name histories, similar names, and even popularity rankings. I browse through each of these sites every once in a while and write down the names that I find interesting in a journal I keep. Then, if I need a name, I just look through the journal.
- Make sure it fits the country and era. If you’re writing a book set in the Victorian Era, naming your character Janiah probably isn’t a good idea. And if your book is set in Russia, don’t name your guy Lorenzo. Even if your book is medieval Fantasy, it’s a good idea to try to name your characters using older languages such as Latin, Norse, and Old English. And Futuristic novels generally should have more modern-sounding names. Unless, of course, you’re going for an ‘ugly duckling’ kind of theme, then giving your character an out of place name might work to your advantage.
- Don’t use painfully long or unpronounceable names. Who here remembers what world Eragon comes from? Yeah, me neither. Turns out, he’s from Alagaësia, but, since I’m not sure how to read or pronounce it, I’m never going to remember it. And, as much as I love Lloyd Alexander, naming his main heroine Eilonwy was an odd move. Nobody pronounces it properly and I can only ever spell it correctly on my second try. And then there are long names likeAr-Adûnakhôr (one of Tolkien’s, in case you couldn’t tell) that people get lost pronouncing half-way through. My point is this: Unless you are Tolkien or J.K. Rowling (she named a main character Hermoine, for goodness sakes!), stick with easy-to-pronounce names. Not only do your readers not want to struggle through long or difficult names, but you don’t want to have to be constantly typing them out. If you simply have to use names with difficult pronunciations, try these tips:
- Spell the name phonetically. You may have to change the spelling of the original name, but that’s okay. Your reader will thank you.
- Have a character explain how to pronounce the name. I’ve seen this a few times and, while you shouldn’t make a habit out of it, it can help you shove in that name you just can’t part with. You can write one character saying the name, but have your other character step in an explain how it should be said, perhaps by rhyming the name with a common word or just typing it out phonetically. Problem solved. Kind of. Just hope the readers remember that scene later on.
- Give the difficult names to smaller character or places that won’t be needed very often.
- Limit your character to one or two names. Either a first and a last or a first and a nickname. But don’t give them one name in one language, one in another, one that they’re known by in this country and one they’re known by in general. Tolkien can do this. You can’t. Sorry.
- Try using alliterative names. Bilbo Baggins, Lois Lane, Severus Snape, Willy Wonka, Luna Lovegood, Peter Parker, Bugs Bunny, Hannah Heath (my parents clearly knew what they were doing). Alliterative names are a good way to help people remember your character without doing something weird like making their first and last name rhyme (just…just don’t try). If you need more convincing, Marvel has a monopoly on alliterative names. Go ahead and google it. I’ll wait. See? That would be Stan Lee’s doing. And if Stan Lee thinks it’s a good idea, it probably is.
- Avoid names that are similar. You don’t want three character names all ending in “y.” You also don’t want to have several names of the same length, such as Ben, Bob, Joe, and Ted. And be careful about starting a lot of names with the same letter. However, if you’re world building, this rule may not apply because people of the same race often have similar names.
- Make it match the character’s personality. People often use the letters “v,” “z,” and “x” in their antagonist names because they can help give a harsh look and sound to a name. Lacey is generally not a good name for your modest, shy female character. And you’re action hero probably shouldn’t be called Cecil, because that undermines his character. There’s a reason John Wayne changed his name from Marion. Nobody wants a cowboy actor called Marion.
Giving your character a good name is important, just as important as giving them a good background story, describing their physical appearance, or giving them personality tags. A good name is clear, memorable, and fits like a glove. That’s why they can be so hard to come up with, but that’s also why they’re so fun to look for. It’s an exciting feeling to run across a name and know, deep down, that that’s what your character is called. Finding the perfect name is always worth the wait.
What guidelines do you follow when naming your characters? Or are you one of those lucky people who just have awesome names pop into their head without trying? Leave your thoughts on this post below!