One of my least favorite tasks in writing fiction is naming my characters. I know, I know, it SHOULD be fun and easy and well, fun.
For me, it isn’t.
I either AGONIZE over a name and drive myself crazy or I flip open the phone book and chose the first name my finger lands on. I figure I can always change it later, right?
Well naming a character really is something to think about. Often times, without even meaning to, a character’s name will influence her character traits, personality, and the theme of the story.
I still hate naming characters.
Honestly, one of my go-to methods for naming a character is to ask my mom. I give her a snippet about the character, how I see him acting, what he looks like, and some basic framework of the story (sci-fi or romance, action or historic) and let her do her thing. After teaching for THIRTY YEARS she’s got a great name database in her head.
If you’re not so lucky, here are five websites to help you with names!
Social Security Administration: Popular Baby Names by Year
You can set the year of birth and get anywhere from the top 20 to the top 1,000 names in that year
Not only the top names by year, but also by region.
Remember the movie “Heathers”? Not just the trends of an individual name, but also about over-reaching trends.
Another resources for regional names.
Because sometimes knowing the name is time-frame appropriate just isn’t enough!
So when you’re picking your names here are my top five tips:
1. Make it easy to say, spell, and hear in your head!
The reader will be “hearing” your character’s name in their head and you don’t want him to struggle or get frustrated that he doesn’t know how to pronounce your main character’s name.
Want a Blockbuster example of this: Hermione. Back BEFORE all the Harry Potter movies, who really knew how to say this name? I kept getting herm-ony, rhymes with harmony.
Sci-fi and fantasy are FILLED with unpronounceable names. If you’re lucky the reader will just make something up and roll with it. If you’re not so lucky OR if you overwhelm the reader with too many unpronounceable names, she’ll put your book down.
2. Make your name believable for the character’s age, the time period, and nationality.
DO NOT name your 40-year-old, female protagonist in a 1920’s western Crystal!
Many of the resources I gave you above allow you to not only look for popular names but also by time period. As much as it can be a pain, you really do need to do your research. Somebody, somewhere will KNOW that the name Clayton didn’t come into vogue until 1980 and naming your 1880 protagonist Clayton is wrong.
(By the way, I made that up. I have no idea when boys were started named Clayton.)
And make sure that your ethnic name actually matches that ethnicity, nationality, or culture!
Now, that being said, you can modernize or Americanize any name but you may want to explain why you’re doing that. For example, I knew a Russian Jew named Greg. It didn’t fit, right? Well in public he was Greg; at home with his Russian immigrant parents, he was Grishka.
3. Nicknames make the story go.
My full name is Kimberly; I go by Kim. But my dad calls me Munch (short for Munchkin), my grandfather calls me Changa and all through high school, my mom called me Kimber. My grandma calls me Vicki-Rosie-Kim as she goes through my aunt’s name, my mom’s name and finally lands on me.
NOBODY calls me Kimmy. It makes me mad.
Except of course for ONE uncle. It’s okay when he does it.
It’s normal for your characters to have more than one name depending on WHO is addressing them. Just make sure it’s crystal-clear to your READER who everybody is.
And, like the example above, a nickname can say a lot about how a character sees herself, how others see her and what makes her crazy.
A variation on a nickname is a term of endearment like honey or baby. No lover ALWAYS addresses his partner by her full name. Ever.
4. Avoid names that sound the same or all start with the same letter.
One summer in high school I taught swim lessons to a family of five that ALL had names starting with K: Kirby, Kelvin, Krista, Kelsey, and Kermit. (I kid you not!) If that’s annoying and hard to keep your head around in real life, it’s doubly so in fiction when the character is just words on a page.
Also avoid too many similarities like Jimmy and Timmy; Jack and John; Kathy and Christine.
A cast of rhyming names is also out: Jerry, Terry, Kerry, Larry.
Avoid ones that sound similar: Gerald and Gerard; Bob and Rob; Christy and Crystal.
And if you can, also vary the number of syllables in a name. Too many David, Edward, Kelly, Patrick, etc. won’t immediately stand out to the reader as all having two syllables but it will grate on the reader and they probably won’t know why it bothers them.
5. Don’t marry the name.
Soooo you think you have the perfect name, do you? Then you are telling a friend, beta reader, the local barista, your mom about the character and they say,
“Oh, I read a book or movie [insert similar plot line] that had a character named that!”
Our subconscious works in mysterious ways and sometimes it serves up the perfect character name. But with a little more research you realize that the REASON it’s perfect is because it’s already been used.
Here’s an example from a very early (high school!) fantasy story I wrote. I named my bad guy Oomadon. Only to be informed by my widely read friend that Ommadon was the name of the wizard in movie playing that past weekend. (Same name, slightly different spelling.)
I changed the name to Oobadion thinking I was dodging a bullet.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized the names were just too similar and scrapped the character’s name altogether. Throughout the draft I just called him O and went back to rename him later.
And if you REALLY hate naming your character, you can buy a gig on Fiverr.com for somebody to do it for you!