Shakespeare said it best, and names carry a lot of weight in a novel. They're often the first thing we know about a character and we make assumptions based on that name--gender, ethnicity, personality, culture. We're not trying to judge them, it's just mentally trying to figure out a story and where everyone and everything fits.
What we name someone matters, because it's an opportunity to convey information to readers under the radar. A first impression, or a hint at who they are.
Say a character walks onto the page. All you know is the name this person gives you.
What do you know? That this is a male character. You might make assumptions based on the Johns you know, but the name itself offers no clues about the character. But what if he introduced himself as:
While a few additional details attached to a name might not seem like a big deal, those details can create images and assumptions about a character that show aspects of that character. Juan is suddenly from a Hispanic family, Giovanni is Italian, Jean is likely French. What details you add to that will suggest even more to readers and allow them to paint a better picture about this person without you having to dump a lot of information on them.
There was a great scene in a recent episode of the TV show Castle where two of the characters-- police detectives--are trapped in a burning building when one detective's wife goes into labor. He's on the phone with her and they're picking names for the baby he might not live to see. He says if it's a boy, name him Javier after his partner, who is there beside him. The partner later jokes about him naming a white Irish kid "Javier."
(More tips on creating names for characters here)
But let's take this beyond the show and think about this kid as character in one of our books. Imagine meeting a red-haired Irish guy named Javier. It would be strange, different, interesting. You'd assume the guy's mother was Hispanic, which would make sense. But then you find out she's not, and this becomes even more intriguing. Eventually you find out the backstory and how his father died in the line of duty, or maybe his partner saved his life and but perished in the attempt. Suddenly, this incongruous name carries a lot of weight and says a lot about this person. It would have shaped his personality in a very different way than had he been called a common Irish name like Ryan or Ian.
Naturally not every name has to have a story behind it, and doing it too much would actually become distracting for the reader, but if there is a reason for a character to have an unusual name, consider using it to deepen that character and the story.
Be wary of names with meaning. Baby name books and sites are great, but don't pick a name heavy with meaning and then use that as a shortcut to character development--name a character Grace and then make her a ballet dancer who flows across the room like water. Or the opposite--a Grace who trips over her own feet every step. If a character's name means something, make it part of who they are, not a descriptive tag. Think about why they were named that and how that shaped them as a person.
For the rest of the characters? Let's look at some common naming guidelines.
Basic Naming Guidelines
Use a different letter for each name: It's hard for readers to remember who's who between Ashley, Amanda, and Alice.
Avoid similar looking names: This holds true for Hannah, Tannis, and Annabeth. Yes, they're different, but readers can see them as "the names with the Ns" and mix them up.
Avoid similar sounding names: Such as Bill, Will, and Phil for the same reason.
(More on naming characters here)
Extra Tips for Genre Names
Science fiction and fantasy has a whole slew of other issues when it comes to naming characters, because the names are often made up to fit the created worlds.
Make sure the names are pronounceable: Think about names like Kha'viiikmx and Gootphisistuvvyne and how readers are going deal with those. They're impossible to say and stop the story cold whenever you hit one. Odds are the reader will simply skim it, and do you really want them skimming over a major character?
Think about the naming conventions of the cultures you've created: Just like different cultures have different variations of names (such as John), alien or fantasy cultures would also have names that reflect that culture. Kha'viiikmx is not a name you'd likely see in the same family as Nya, or even the same city. Maybe not even the same planet.
Think about naming conventions for both places and people: Many science fiction or fantasy names could apply to characters as well as settings. Consider ways to show the difference that makes it easier for your readers to know if Hundar is a person, a place, or a tasty dish served at the inn.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Character Name
What image will this name conjure in the average reader's mind? Every generation has the cool names and the uncool names. It's unfair, but true. Defying stereotypes is great, but unless that's part of the story, it can seem like you're making fun of your own character. If you don't take her seriously, why should readers?
What associations already exist with this name? Name a character Adolf and you get all the historical baggage that comes with it. Some names become iconic for good and bad reasons and we can't hear them without thinking about the person who made them famous.
What do you want to say about this character with this name? A character who is an old soul or old fashioned might have a name associated with another generation, or someone who is free-spirited might have a name that's a bit out there. It could be a family trait or a nickname they choose themselves.
What expectations are you looking to defy with this name? Maybe you want your Adolf to be a proponent of equality and rage against prejudice, and he's that way because of his name. Or maybe you want the popular jock to have a name typically associated with the least popular kid in school. If there's a reason for the defiance, it could be a powerful name for a character.
How does this name fit with the rest of the names in the novel? While you don't want all your names to feel the same, they ought to be consistent with the world and story. It's a pet peeve of mine when I see a real world name pop up in a fantasy novel. It always jars me out of the story. Consider how your names are going to appear together and if any of them seem out of place.
Names play an important role in shaping our characters and our stories, so choose the ones that best exemplify that character or role they play.
ETA: Coincidentally, I just now read a fascinating study on names and regions that fits perfectly with all this.
What are some of your favorite names? How about your least favorites names? Why?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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