We all know the line.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
~William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Well, even though in the above passage Juliet is telling Romeo a name is a formality that is less important than the person who is called by it, there is actually quite a lot in a name–especially when a writer is naming a new cast of characters.
In a lot of ways, naming our characters can be compared to naming children. Why else would some of us refer to our projects as our Book Babies?
A great deal of care comes with the process that can make the whole thing daunting.
And it’s something I’m facing again, as I’ve made the tough call to change a protagonist’s name after nine years.
That’s why this week, the name of the game is alleviating whatever fears you might have with my tips for naming your characters while I set out on the search for the perfect name for mine.
So, what actually is in a name?
Genre can be one of the greatest influences on naming characters. You might be less likely to find a character named Caspian Alderon in a Science-Fiction work than a fantasy, romance, or historical work the same way a name like Frank Jones might not be as common in a fantasy world as it would be in a police drama.
Cultural and Regional Factors
Your character’s cultural background can be another influence in what they are named.
In elementary school, there were five kids in my class with the last name Rodriguez. None of them were related.
Looking at first or last names found in your character’s culture can be a good place to start like Hiroko Oshiro for a character of Japanese heritage or Thorbjørn Martinsen for a character of Norwegian descent.
Although it was a very uncommon name in the Regency, practically unheard of, one of my own protagonists has an old Celtic name because he is of Irish heritage. While this is never explicitly stated, his name and other details allude to the fact.
When looking for character names, it can also be interesting to look at the variations of the same name across different languages:
English | John
Spanish | Juan
French | Jean
German | Johann/Johannes
Irish | Sean
Sometimes, however, a name significant in one culture can be lost in translation in others.
My cousin was married to a Peruvian man whose relatives were surprised by her objection to the name Fatima when they had their daughter, which I believe would have been inspired by Our Lady of the Holy Rosary of Fátima.
While the name is pronounced Fah-Tee-Mah, there was concern that the girl’s future classmates would pronounce it as Fat-Ih-Mah, which in turn could have prompted teasing and bullying on the playground, calling her fat etc. Fatima ended up being her middle name.
Doki Doki Literature Club! is one of my absolute favorite video games. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I won’t say too much because this is one of those games where spoilers can really ruin your gameplay experience. Just know it presents itself as a run-of-the-mill anime dating sim, and it’s available on Steam. (Be warned, this is a game for mature audiences only. Believe me when I say this game looks cutesy and harmless at first, but it covers a lot of serious topics).
As expected from the game’s style, the characters have the distinctly Japanese names of Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri, and Monika.
Monika’s name prompts a pun in this exchange:
Natsuki: “Are you saying you don’t like squid? You of all people?”
Monkia: “I didn’t say I don’t like it. Besides, what do you mean by ‘you of all people’?”
Natsuki: “Because! It’s right in your name! Mon-ika!”
Monkia: “That’s not how you say my name at all! Also, that joke makes no sense in translation!”
Ika means “squid” in Japanese, though the humor might be lost on audiences who do not speak the language, hence Monika’s remark about the joke being lost in translation.
This is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t use names outside of your own cultures or those of your characters out of concerns that your reader may not “get” it. A character’s culture and heritage can tell a lot not only about the character themselves but their world. If they are one of several Rodriguezes in a class, for instance, it suggests a large Latinx population in their region. A family with the surname of Pavlovksy in this community might feel a little out of place at times.
When your character’s name originates can be just as important as where it comes from.
Historical fiction writers should be considering their story’s setting when naming their characters. A character named Klohe would not fit as well in an old Colonial town as Martha or Fanny, just as Robert would not likely be seen raiding a village alongside Ragnar and Halvdan.
This idea not only relates to historical fiction writers but writers of contemporary pieces as well. While the “rules” and “customs” about naming your child are a lot more relaxed today than they were, we still have trends stemming not only out of sound but pop culture.
Names like Daenerys, Skyler/Skylar, and Willow have seen a rise in popularity as a result of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, respectively.
Considering when your character would have been born and when they live in addition to where they are from can be another thing to base naming decisions off of. What names were popular in that decade? Would their parents stay away from the trends and do something different?
However, I do advise to stay away from names that are too trendy. A lot of YA protagonists are coming around with names ending in –iss sounds after the success of The Hunger Games featuring Katniss Everdeen and subsequently Divergent’s Beatrice “Tris” Prior. Nods and tributes are fine, but don’t set out to copy the trends.
Famous and Familial Connections
I attended school with a guy whose name was Sylvester Stallone.
I assure you, that is in the correct order.
I also knew a kid whose first name was Steven with the middle name of Tyler. As in Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
Sometimes, this may be done intentionally. Your character’s parents might be HUGE fans of a certain band like The Beatles so they end up naming their kids John and Paul after John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
I’ve seen images floating around of a homemade sign held up at a New Kids on the Block concert reading “My Husband Just Realized Why Our Son Is Named Jordan,” after bandmember Jordan Knight.
In one of my novels-in-progress, my protagonists is named Miranda and her older sister is named Juliet. Their mother loved Shakespeare’s plays, so they were named after characters from The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet. Miranda later continues this tradition by naming her daughter Beth as a reference to Macbeth.
If this seems like something your character’s parents would have done, then exploring this might be an option.
There is also the possibility your character is named after an ancestor or relative.
Maybe your character is named after his father or grandfather, or maybe your character’s mother is like Lorelai Gilmore and named her daughter Lorelai “Rory” Gilmore. What if their parents’ first dance at a married couple was to a Goo Goo Dolls song, thus their first daughter was named Iris?
If they were named after someone or something, consider how that might shape your character’s view of themselves or how others might see them. Would they want to adhere to that image or make an effort to diverge from it?
Wealth and Class
One of my projects is heavily focused on the division of classes within the Regency Era, switching between the genteel characters in the upper classes and the servants who are employed at the manor house. The names of my characters (mostly) reflect this.
Typically, lower class characters might have a wider variety of names whereas those in the upper class often stuck to a smaller collection of names, often using the same name in multiple generations.
Your character’s name might also reflect their social standing.
Gossip Girl follows a group of upper-class teens in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and features characters like Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, and Nathaniel “Nate” Archibald.
And then there’s Dan Humphrey, who can be called a classmate at school but not in society. Even in his name alone, it is clear he does not grow up with the same rich and privileged lifestyle.
When naming a character, consider what their family’s history may have been. Trade names like Carpenter or Smith have a vastly different history than Archibald or Waldorf.
Now that we’ve covered some things that might influence what your character is named, let’s look at some other things to keep in mind.
Names With Significant Meaning
As writers, we sometimes are wont to employ an element of symbolism in what we name our characters. Whether this is in the name’s cultural or historical meaning, possibly referencing a classic work of literature, or naming them something that conjures up a contrasting image of who they are, this can be a popular starting point.
However, this method can lead to names that are a little on the nose.
One of my favorite lines from any CinemaSins video is from Everything Wrong With Fifty Shades of Grey In 18 Minutes Or Less:
“So his name is [Christian] Grey and her name is [Anastasia] Steele and…I’m supposed to take ANY of this s*it seriously? Meet his previous lovers, Tracy Chrome and Vicki Tungsten!!”
Now, names being this on the nose can be intentional.
In Agaist His Vows, my protagonist’s last name is Meade. Although he starts out in London as heir apparent to an earldom, he and his wife eventually purchase a barley farm. Barley is commonly an ingredient used in mead recipes. While this was not intentional, I kept it rather than change it because it relates to a line towards the end about how becoming a farmer may not have been the life he was supposed to have, but the life he was meant to have.
However, in this same project, Mrs. Meade finds herself being antagonized by her neighbor in her effort to drive the Meades away from their farm so she and her husband can purchase the land as they had intended. Originally, this woman was to be named Mrs. Sharpe, and while I do love that name for an antagonist, I’ve decided to seek a different one for Against His Vows as it does feel a little too blunt (even though the barley farmer’s name is Meade).
While I encourage sprinkling symbolism throughout a piece of writing, the key word here is sprinkling. Connections that are too on the mark, especially in abundance within the same project, can result in names that send your reader’s eyes rolling like Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey.
Does Your Character Like Their Name?
Just because you like your character’s name doesn’t mean they do.
Consider what nicknames your character might use, or which ones their friends and family might come up with.
He might go by Matt because he just doesn’t like the sound of Matthew. She might be Liza out of a desire to separate herself from her Great-Aunt Elizabeth’s legacy. Have they changed their name to assimilate to a new culture?
Are they called Bean because Beatrice was too difficult for them to say as a toddler and the name just stuck?
Aside from nicknames and shortened forms of first names, they might also go by their middle name or last name.
Or even another name entirely. Your character’s best friend might go by Jenny for one reason or another even though her legal name is Charlotte Mae Patterson.
Consider what name your character might want to be called if not by their first name, and why that might be.
His Name Is My Name, Too
Tired of “Baby Shark”?
Here’s another earworm for you:
John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt
His name is my name, too
Whenever we go out
The people always shout
There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt
While John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt is a silly name, it does bring me to my next point.
What if your character shares their name with somebody else?
For example, John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt is not the only John Jacob that has ever existed.
John Jacob Astor IV, was an American businessman, a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish–American War, and the wealthiest passenger aboard the Titanic. Astor was among those who perished in the sinking.
Sometimes, duplication like this is not an accident. which can be intentional like Disney’s Recess, which featured the Ashleys, a clique of girls who were all named Ashley (which I think was a nod to Heathers, which featured a trio of girls named who were all named Heather).
This can also be done unintentionally.
In the popular video game Life is Strange, one of Max’s classmates and proud member of the Vortex Club is named Victoria Chase.
There is also a character on the show Hot in Cleveland named Victoria Chase.
The leading lady in The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks is named Beth Green.
Beth Greene is also the name of a character created for the television adaption of The Walking Dead.
It happens. Just like having the same last name as an unrelated classmate, your characters might wind up sharing the same name as a real person or another fictional character.
Popping your character’s name into the Google search bar can help prevent this. Granted, there is always the chance there is someone out there with your character’s name depending on how common it is, or shares it with someone who lived many years ago that was not documented beyond an obscure census record (more on those in a bit), but this can help to make sure your character will not get lost in a bunch of Beth Green(e)s and Victoria Chases.
That’s what’s in a name. But where do you find them?
If you write historical fiction like me, it can also be helpful to scour the internet for not only a list of what names were popular in the time period your story was set in, but historical documents.
One of my go-tos for surnames especially is this Post Office Directory from 1807. It’s kind of like flipping through a phone book to find names. It also has information about mail routes from the era, costs to post a letter to various locations, and local banks.
Other documents like census records, newspapers, and rosters for various groups like militias, clubs, or passenger lists.
It might also be useful to keep a running list of names you find interesting. By no means directly use someone’s name, but if you meet someone with an interesting first or last name, keep it in mind. Several of the above baby name sites have features that allow users to search names similar to one they type in. Searching for “Isabelle” might lead to names like “Isabel,” “Isabella,” or “Elizabeth.” This can help you to discover names you may not have even known were out there.
And, as with anything related to writing, reading books in your genre can also help. As I mentioned above, it is better to be original than to follow the trends out there, but making a list of names used in your genre can be a launching point for you in figuring out what sort of names might fit your character based on your story.
These are only a few of the ways to find names for your characters and a short list of things to keep in mind throughout the process. A number of other factors can influence the final decision.
And that, readers, is the name of the game.