Flashback: Naming Characters

When you see “Flashback” in front of an article, it means it is an article that originally appeared on Word Museum in the beginning before it was sold and then regained by Lori. We have reposted these articles, because we feel they add great value to the site. Where possible we include the date of the original article.

by: Dawn Lesley Stewart
Date: May 19, 2001

Article

Your story idea is brilliant, the plot convoluted enough to keep any reader guessing, the setting real enough to visit. So why the hesitation? Ah, the characters lack names and memorable characteristics.

Picking names out of the air isn’t working, so where will you find those elusive names and the personality quirks to bring the characters alive?

NAME THESAURUS Baby name books contain the meanings and origins of names as well as pronunciation and a name’s various forms, such as Anne, Ann, Anna. If you’re like me, though, you enjoy unusual names that lend flavor to a story, particularly if the story is ethnic or “other-worldly” like a science fiction tale. One of my favorite books is “The New Age Baby Name Book” by Sue Browder, which lists over 3,000 names. One example is a girl’s name: Nunki

(NOO:N-kee), which refers to The Archer, a star in the constellation Sagittarius. Remember, just because the book suggests names as first names doesn’t mean they can’t be used as last names or even nicknames.

NUMBERS NAME GAME Perhaps your character has already chosen her name (as some fictional characters tend to do, whether you like the name or not!) and you can’t quite target her personality. “You Are Your First Name” by Ellin Dodge Young is a versatile book that uses numerology to analyze over 1,000 names; and if the name you need is not in the book, the author provides the formula for determining any name’s personality characteristics. It’s easy to develop an entire character from the lists of character traits available for each name.

For instance, the name Jasmine is of Persian/English origin. Upon first meeting, a person named Jasmine appears refined and modest. She is efficient, adaptable and uses good judgment and seems self-confident even when unsure.

Inwardly, Jasmine is strong-willed and desires a loving mate and respectability. These are just a few of Jasmine’s characteristics, and the book even lists possible careers.

THE STARS SPELL YOUR NAME Once when I had trouble fine-tuning a character in a novel, I sought the advice of an astrologer who worked a chart for the character. It’s amazing how many details surfaced that brought the character to life, but you don’t have to rely on an astrologer for personality analysis. Linda Goodman wrote two wonderful books, “Sun Signs” and “Love Signs,” which translate the movement of the stars into a universe of usable material for creating memorable characters.

In the book “Sun Signs,” Linda Goodman not only reveals the characteristics of the zodiac such as Aries, Libra and Virgo, she breaks these signs into groupings. Each astrological sign includes subheadings: How to Recognize Scorpio, The Scorpio Woman, The Scorpio Man, The Scorpio Child, The Scorpio Boss, The Scorpio Employee. These different ways of interpreting each astrological sign offer character nuances the writer might not normally think to include in a story.

“Love Signs,” as the title suggests, pairs all the astrological signs to determine the dynamics of each love match. For instance, what do a Capricorn and a Pisces bring to a relationship? The book confides all the details complete with bits of imagined dialogue between the two lovers. Linda Goodman explains the Capricorn/Pisces relationship and then approaches the relationship from both the male and female viewpoint. Interesting, insightful reading to add depth to character associations.

WALK THOSE FINGERS The telephone book is a vast source of names. Not only does it list first, last and sometimes middle names; it includes street and town names. I have used street names as character names, especially when the story demands an unusual twist to how a character is viewed. The name Greensleeve Johnson is a street name combined with a last name, both from the telephone book. When looking for a career for your character, don’t forget the business section of the telephone directory. Careers galore splatter the pages. Perhaps Greensleeve Johnson is a florist or a professional carpet cleaner. Mix and match proper nouns to create the perfect name combination.

DON’T FORGET THE INTERNET The internet is one of my favorite research tools where helpful information awaits the persistent searcher. My favorite name site is:

http://www.babycenter.com/babyname/index.html

Among the traditional list of girl’s and boy’s names are lists of the most popular names from 1930 to 1990, 1996 and 1997. You can search for specific name origins such as Egyptian, Hawaiian or Teutonic names. To locate names with a specific meaning, enter the definition, for example “morning light,”and a list of candidates appear such as Aaron, which means enlightened or Danica, meaning the morning star. The reverse also works by entering a name, such as Kira, and a list of name meanings will appear-Kira means light. Just in case you still can’t decide which name to use, this site also contains a reference list of naming books; or if you feel in need of a brainstorming session, join the online chat group at this site.

NAME THAT CHARACTER Now that you have the resources you need to select character names, here are few points to consider while pondering the perfect moniker.

Syllables: Don’t use the same number of syllables in the first and last name. The ear prefers variety, and the tongue needs to wrap easily around the words. Combine a short first name with a long last name: Susan Nickerson. Pair a long first name with a short last name: Worthington Clark. If the character demands a long first name and last name, separate the two with a short middle name such as Nicholas Luke Shannahan (and after introducing the character, call him Nick Shannahan).

Pronunciation: Make sure the reader knows how to pronounce the character’s name. This dilemma has happened to more than one author, and if the character is a series character, the mispronounced name may haunt the author for a long time. One way to inform the reader about a character’s name is to write something like this, “Jun Ho stumbled through the long lines in the unemployment office and, for the fourth time that day, informed the clerk that Jun sounded like June. He didn’t tell the clerk his Chinese name meant ‘truth’ because he was about to lie.” This bit of narrative informs the reader of the character’s sex, name, the name’s pronunciation, origin and meaning. And by telling the reader the name means “truth” and then revealing the character is about to lie, sets up an interesting situation that has the reader asking, “Why is this man about to lie, and what brought him to this decision?”

Initials: When creating a character with a first, middle and last name, make sure the initials don’t spell an embarrassing word or acronym-unless the spelling is intentional. For instance, Douglas Ulyses Dolan spells DUD. Maybe the fellow is a dud, but unless you want to call attention to the fact, change the name. Review initials to make sure they don’t spell an acronym with unpleasant associations, such as the name Daisy Deerfield Tellings, which spells DDT, a harmful pesticide. I hope Daisy isn’t operating a garden center.

Rhyming & Alliteration: Avoid rhyming and alliteration when choosing a name. Cute names like these can quickly become annoying. Some examples: Sally MacNally and Betty Barbara Bruckley. An exception to this rule is to use rhyming names in children’s stories, which is acceptable and sometimes expected. Also in this category are the “playful” names that authors love to create but wouldn’t want to live with as their lifelong names. Some of these witticisms might include Stormy Night or Lily Padd or Nick L. Odeon. Of course, your story might need a character with a quirky name, but evaluate whether using a word-play name actually strengthens the character and/or the story.

Famous Names: Unless a well-known name is mandatory to the story’s development, choose original names for your characters. Abraham Lincoln, Davey Crockett, Amelia Earhart all served history and are fine names; however, let your character carve his own place in the reader’s mind through action and dialogue.

Many, Many Characters: When writing a story populated with a cast of characters, make sure the names differ. It will confuse the reader if several characters have names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, or if character names begin with the same first and last letters, such as Jack Tyler and Jake Trask. Also, names that sound alike such as Molly and Holly may bewilder the reader. If similar names are used in a story, make sure strong character traits are assigned to each person so the reader can easily identify each character.

WHAT’S IN A NAME Character names are just as important as “real life” names. As a child, I didn’t know anyone with my name, Dawn. Like most children, I wanted to blend in, not stand out as different. Yet, had my parents named me other than Dawn, I believe my life would have changed in subtle ways. How did my name become Dawn? My mother christened me after her favorite part of the day, and that is how character begins. So choose your character’s name with the same care you would name your child, and watch your character grow into a “real” person.

Lori Soard started Word Museum in 1997. She’s a published author and has written thousands of articles over the years for newspapers, magazines and online. She has a PhD in Journalism and lives in Southern Indiana with her husband. They have two grown daughters, both animal lovers their house is always filled with pets.

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