When I got asked the other day, “How do you name characters?” it really made me think. A fellow writer who was struggling to get his novel going was curious and he asked via Twitter. I’d ‘sort of’ thought about it before, but putting it down, reading back what I thought, it was an interesting experience.
Before I share that process, I want to take a second about sharing our secrets like “How do you name characters?”
Over my 25 years of writing on the side, I’ve learned from other people. They’ve given me some feedback, they’ve given me food for thought, most importantly they’ve given me their reactions to what I wrote. Very few of them, if any, ever gave me anything valuable to help me writer better. That really came over the past six months as I got more engaged with Twitter and saw how some people tackle the common issues we face.
When I saw a lonely writer’s tweet that she’d like someone to read her rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, I saw that it had no replies and that it had been sitting there for hours. I decided in that moment that I was going to start being really explicit about my offer to help people, and so I reached out. After her came a string of other people. I’d find the time in my crazy schedule to read their question, or the couple of pages they sent me, and try to provide insightful answers or feedback. They all appreciated it.
Let’s call the person who asked How do you name characters, Jim. When Jim asked me a very generalized question of helping him regarding thinking about his zombie novel, I said sure. I wasn’t sure where I was going to get the time from, but I know what it’s like to feel stuck and need the type of support that you just don’t have around you that you need.
Jim, rather than asking a completely opened ended “Where do I go?” instead asked this question, How do you name characters. I loved that it was so focused but also that it was something that I really do have a means to my madness about, that not everyone likely does.
Recently I posted Why Share My Old Works and I started posting old short stories I’d written for the purpose of helping other writers know where I came from, and seeing my progression. This adds to the spirit of helping others grow, makes you grow.
The first thing I do is I figure out whether or not I want the names of all, or any, of the characters to have significance. This has to do with whether or not I want to have layered meaning in my story (which I usually do). And yes, if you’ve read or are curious about my The Yellow Hoods series, I did this. Names like: Abeland, Bakon’s real name, Pierre and LeLoup, these are all intentional and their meanings are significant. Not every name is, but key names are. Some names are significant for their definition, and some for how they are spelled or constructed. For example, Nikolas Klaus is not accidental, St. Nicholas + Nikola Tesla => Nikolas Klaus, and as a character he is a brilliant inventor who is very generous.
If a name doesn’t jump out at me, or if it is holding me back from getting on with the story, I come up with a placeholder nickname. I work on trying to imagine some core things about the character, and sometimes I’ll change their name multiple times as I write. In both book 1 and book 2, I changed a characters name pretty much after the first draft was done. For example, Pierre de-Montagne was Gavin de-Montagne, but I had a scene with Gabriel and Gavin and it looked awkward, and then as I figured out what “Gavin” was really about, I realized he was the rock of the mountain, the essence of what the people were about, and he was a ‘solid’ good guy, and thus Pierre made sense (pierre means rock in French).
I want the names for characters to work together so that the reader can easily distinguish between them but also that they flow together. For example, in the Yellow Hoods I have Tee, Elly and Richy; 3 letters, 4 letters and 5 letters, the Golden Ratio. They are also good names for tweens who are growing up, because they have a nickname & “kid” element to them, without being ‘babyish.” They also sound good together and I can flip their order around without making it awkward. The name of Tee only stands out slightly from the other two which is what I wanted, which is in contrast with what’s next.
I have two other trios in book 2, but one of them that doesn’t spoil anything are Marcus, Richelle and Abeland (aka Abe). While Abeland is only mentioned a couple of times and will be featured in book 3 mostly, I wanted the three names to have a bit of formality to them, to have meaning, and to not overwhelm the reader when they were read together. I also wanted it to be clear that each of them are strong enough to stand on their own.
Why THAT flavour?
If I chose Joe, Frank and Margaret as a trio, I’d have to figure out why didn’t go by Joseph, or did he offer people he was really close to that opportunity? Was he a “Call me Joseph, my mom always did.” or was he a “Call me Joseph and I’ll kick your teeth in so hard you’ll eat lunch through your butt” type of guy.
Whether you give significance to the definitions of names, you’ve got to remember that your reader is going to be reading those names again and again and again. You shouldn’t give names to secondary characters that over-shadow primary characters unless you are doing that on purpose. If everyone has exciting names but your main character’s name is Joe, then it creates a cool contrast because Joe is simple and Stephano is seemingly more complex, and that might feed as a great subtle point to the reader (maybe not so subtle, depends on the reader).
Each writer has a different approach, but if there’s one thing I can suggest to those writers who haven’t done so, figure out how you name, you might learn a lot about what you do. Then? Share it.