What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
– William Shakespeare
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life… How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!
– John Proctor
Throughout time, there has long been a debate on the importance of names. In the two examples above, Shakespeare doesn’t seem too concerned. Call it a rose, call it a tulip, call it an elephant… the flower itself will still smell the same.
But John Proctor, the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, vehemently disagrees. To him, his name is the undeniable proof of his identity, his legacy, and he will be damned if anyone tries to take that way from him.
So when it comes to naming a character in your novel, there’s quite a bit of pressure. S0 do you pour hours of research into choosing the perfect fit? Or do you play “eeny, meeny, miny moe,” and just pick one?
Ultimately, that’s a personal choice and depends on the type of novel you are writing, but each name needs to be unique, pronounceable and appropriate for the character’s age, ethnicity and gender.
Sound overwhelming? Here’s a few different methods that may inspire you.
Open up a baby book.
Yes, it is weird to carry around a baby book when you are not expecting. Yes, I have done it. You never know when a name will jump out at you. You can also use these books to identify an appropriate meaning, era and origin.
Develop a theme.
It can be alliterative names like Bilbo Baggins and Severus Snape. It can be spices like Rosemary, Basil and Clove. Or it can even sum up the battle between classes by using stereotypical names for the poorer and richer sectors.
I doubt it was a coincidence that Katniss, Rue, and Primrose were all named after plants in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Plants also play a large role in the survival of her characters – an apt thematic method.
Borrow from a friend.
My two main characters in State of Grace are Josh Harper and Danielle Anderson – meet them here. I borrowed both of their surnames from the great kids I nannied in college. Secondary characters – Ben and Sophie – are named for and based on two good friends. If the name fits, use it. Trust me, they will be honored. Just maybe don’t use their name for the villain…
In my humble opinion, J.K Rowling is the master of names – among other things. She uses everything from French and Latin to astrology and symbolism to name her characters. For instance, Sirius Black literally means “black dog,” an obvious reference to his animal morphing abilities, and all of his siblings are named after other stars. These methods work fantastically for fantasy novels that are a little more “out there” than usual. Like when a human turns into a dog…
Choose from experience.
Keep a list of names in your phone or notebook. It could be a train station, a professor, a medicine or even a designer or artist. Then when you are ready to name, go back through your list and see what may fit best.
See? Naming your characters doesn’t have to be a pressure-packed struggle with these simple methods of brainstorming.
And above all that, remember that while names may be important, it’s what your characters do with them that matters.
A name can’t begin to encompass the sum of all her parts. But that’s the magic of names, isn’t it? That the complex, contradictory individuals we are can be called up complete and whole in another mind through the simple sorcery of a name.
– Charles de Lint
Share some of your favorite character names below!