Shakespeare thought that if you call a rose a fart-lump it would still smell as sweet and women would still be glad to get them for special occasions and apologies. What’s in a name?
Unfortunately, at least in my mind, far too many people put too much thought into what the characters. I know that sounds strange and doesn’t even match my usual MO because I like picking character names that mean something.
This is what I mean:
On various Facebook groups and writing forums, I see a lot of writers asking questions like, “What should I name a mean woman who has a big ego and struggles with her weight?”
No parent, eagerly awaiting the birth of their baby daughter, has ever asked themselves, “What should we name our dear sweet child? She’ll probably end up being a mean woman with a big ego and a weight problem. What name goes with that?”
Mean women, egotistical men, sweet children, nerds, geeks, preps, and hipsters all get named when they are infants or pre-infants. Parents pick family names, names from media that they like, or ones that are popular in that generation. Sometimes they go nuts and name their kids something like Blueberry or Southeast, but the people who do that are usually rich or famous enough not to have to worry about their child getting beat up at school every day for having a weird name.
Most of my characters come with a name. They show up in the back of my head, introduce themselves, and set about telling me their story. Sometimes I have to figure out their name because they don’t want to tell me for some reason.
Here’s how you do it. Or at least here’s how I do it.
Go With What Is Popular
If your story is contemporary, and your main character is a 25-year-old woman, do a simple Google search for “popular girls names in 1990.” This will bring up several sites that lists the top 100 girls names used in that year when your main character was born. Because they are popular, chances are your character’s parents used one of them as well.
This doesn’t mean you should pick the first one. With 100 names to choose from, you can probably find something that suits your character.
These lists are also very helpful to make sure you don’t choose a name that would not be found at all in the year your MC was born. For example, it is very unlikely that a 50-year-old man in America would be named Jayden.
Go For Meaning
You have to be a little careful with this one because meaning can quickly translate into twee if you’re not careful. Twee, by the way, mean something is just too (ridiculously over the top and affectedly) cute or quaint.
Example: three old, giggly spinster ladies in your book who wear flowered hats and drink tea named Petunia, Primrose, and Poppy. Of course, it is quite possible that their parents named them these things, but the character combined with the names turns them into caricatures instead of people. Of course, if they’re supposed to be caricatures in your book, this makes sense.
I personally like working with meanings of names. Did you know that Adriana actually means dark? Most of your readers probably don’t either, but you do.
Basic Naming Stuff to Avoid
Here is the general writing tips section of this post. These are things you should avoid when naming your characters because it makes it confusing for the reader. The last thing you want to do is confuse the reader because they are likely to put down the book and never pick it up again.
1 – Avoid androgynous or unisex names, unless you have a reason to use an androgynous name. People identify the characters of your book by gender, habits, personality traits, and how they interact with other characters. If they can’t remember if Kasey, Riley, or Quinn is your male or female MC, it might affect the entire story.
2 – Avoid names that sound like each other. If the three best friends in your book are named Lily, Millie, and Holly, people are going to get confused. The same even goes for the first initial. Sam, Stacy, and Susan sounded different, but the beginning S gets in the way of comprehension.
3 – Avoid famous, infamous, or overtly meaningful names. This was touched upon a bit above when I spoke about turning characters into caricatures but takes it a step further. Calling the tough guy Brutus or naming a flirty and strong woman Scarlet O’Hanessy, or something equally as telling, pulls people out of the story.
The last thing you want to do is pull the reader out of the story.