April 16, 2012

N is for...Naming Characters

How was your weekend? Mine was a sweet mashup of assembling shelves, doing our taxes (yay for refunds!), immersing myself in all things Titanic, troubleshooting issues in my WiP, thinking about doing housework, and watching worse than brutal Penguins v. Flyers games (boo). Exciting stuff.

And now back to the reason why we're here. It's 'N' day in the A to Z Challenge, and my topic is:

Naming Characters

If you're not a writer, then this is not something you probably ever think about. Unless you have a whole host of imaginary friends who require names, in which case, you might find this interesting.

When it comes to naming your imaginary friends characters, just how important to you are such things as name meaning and origin? Do these factor in at all when you're planning out the details of your WiP? Or do names just pop into your head that simply feel right for your characters?

With few exceptions, I'm really big on assigning names to my characters that have some kind of significance. A name is not usually just a name in my writing. Of course, it has to be right for my character→ suited to the time period, doesn't feel awkward, isn't too much like another character's name, isn't tough to pronounce or remember (Beef #1 with most fantasy), and it just feels like it suits that particular character and his/her personality.* 

I've had the misfortune to come across some of my characters' names in other books that I've read, and sometimes these books are even similar to what I'm working on. When that happens, I go back to the drawing board and search for something that feels really close to the name I originally chose so that I can still feel connected to that character. Here are a couple of recent examples of this:

Caleb→ For my MC's brother, I initially chose the name Caleb. Now, I started writing this story in June/July of last year...not long after I read Divergent by Veronica Roth. If you remember, Tris's brother's name is Caleb. Whoops! My book isn't really like Divergent, but it has influenced me, so I axed the name. I chose Callum instead, because I like it, and it's close in sound to my original pick.

Evie→ I knew that Kiersten White's MC in the Paranormalcy books was called Evie, but as my WiP is nothing at all similar to this series, I figured it was fine. Until I read A Million Suns by Beth Revis (which is sci-fi like my WiP) and she had a secondary character called by this name. Derp! Again, back to the drawing board. I settled on Elli, because it's very similar, and I like it.

So where do I go to find fitting character names?
Behind the Name (great for name etymologies) 
Baby Name Wizard (awesome search options)
• and tons of other online resources
• a book called 35,000+ Baby Names


Most people will never know (if I get published, that is) that I chose character names with attention to meaning and/or origin. And that's just fine. But, should anybody do a little digging, they'll get why I went with Callum over Conor, for instance. Not crucial to the story, just kind of interesting.

Plus, I'll know that my characters' names are significant, and that actually matters a lot to me.

Does this matter to you too? And if it does, where do you go for your character name inspiration?

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* If only we were all lucky enough to choose a name that suits us. I certainly wouldn't pick Jaime.

49 comments:

  1. I take forever to name characters because they absolutely have to feel right. Babynames.com is my go to site for names.

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    1. Thanks for the site suggestion. I'm the same way with characters. I've actually spent hours trying to come up with the exact right name for a character. Craziness :)

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  2. I said something on someone else's blog recently about names, particularly how names can take on the significance of their owners. Before 1939, most people wouldn't have thought twice about calling a son Adolf (it was Harpo Marx's real name, after all). Joanne Rowling was probably not a particularly remarkable name before 1998. And what does the name Stephen King make you think of? So, who knows? In years to come, the name Jaime Morrow might be one that lots of aspiring writers would love to claim. :)

    As for my own character's names, it really depends on the story, but I tend to go with names that suit the character. For novels, I prefer to have a complete name--first, middle (if applicable) and last--but that's part of creating well-rounded, fully-realized characters. So once I have a name I like, I Google it. Are there any celebrities that share this name? I don't want to be sued, and I want this character's name to be synonymous with my character, not a real film star or musician. I would rather it not be shared by anyone--even a "normal" person--but given the number of people in the world, that would be impossibly restrictive (unless I'm writing fantasy).

    Good topic Jaime, and, as always, a great article. :)

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    1. I also like to give my main characters full names--first, middle, last. I think it's all part of, like you say, creating well-rounded and real characters. It never occurred to me to try Googling my characters' names to make sure they weren't already attached to something popular. Can you imagine if your name was Harry Potter, for instance? Man, you'd never stop hearing about it now. :D

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  3. I take the same care in naming my characters as I do with my children. Mostly I get a feel for who the character is, then try to find a name that suits him/her. Baby name websites are very useful.

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    1. I do the same type of thing too--get a feel for the character. This does have to happen very early on for me, though. I find it's hugely important in understanding and connecting to a given character (specifically primary characters).

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  4. Usually the names just come as soon as I think of my main character, it's like he/she already had the name before I even thought about them. for the rest of the cast, I look at baby name sites, or search for old southern names or irish names, depending on the characters background.

    My current MC is names Cora... whenever I thought about her that's the name that came to me. Cora is not a name that I'd pick, so I tried to name her Pia... she would not go for it, and I had to go back and change it to Cora because it kept feeling wrong.

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    1. My characters sometimes crop up with a name already attached to them. This has happened a few times, and it just so happened that the name meaning actually fit them (←kind of creepy actually).

      And I absolutely love the name Cora. It's actually on my list of names that I've stashed for when we have kids. I love mostly Welsh, Irish, and Scottish names, and it's even better if they have great meanings. Bonus! :)

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  5. I spend a lot of time when choosing my characters' names, at least the central ones. Besides time period and ethnicity, I'm careful about meaning. Usually, the meaning of the name I chose has to do with the personality or mission of that character ;)

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    1. I'm a little less obsessed with giving all of my secondary characters significant names, but often times even they end up with them too. I do the same→ give characters names that have to do with personality and/or mission. Or something symbolic about them.

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  6. Aaaahhhhh, this is the absolute biggest black hole of time for me, ever. I could spend a week picking out three names. I have had more than one writing project derailed because I got so carried away looking up names. So now my rule is I have to just pick names with my gut at first, and if I want to change them later, I can, but it has to happen on non-writing time. Although when I try out a full-time writing schedule this summer, I am planning to allot some time for character development--names, images, backstory, playlists--but if I'm just grabbing time here and there, writing time has to be writing time.

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    1. I spend disgusting amounts of time on this too. For me it's all about connecting with and/or understanding that character better. Sometimes characters crop up with a name already attached to them, and it's wonderful when the name's meaning actually works well with the story (and a bit creepy). :)

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  7. I love choosing character names, and often feel I don't know my character until I know her name. The opposite holds true, too, though (for me). Right now, my heroine is nameless. Every placeholder name I use is WRONG, and I end up just calling her "girl" a lot while I wait for a name to come.

    I use Baby Names World mostly. Sometimes I'll ask google a question and see what it comes up with, like, "southern names" or "british names."

    p.s. I am IN LOVE wit Downton Abbey. My hulu decided to be a stinker, so I bought the series on DVD. I watched the entire thing as fast as I could. Now, the laundry is threatening to reach the ceiling and the floors are hideous, but WHO CARES?!? Um, and when does season 3 start because I'm absolutely dying after the Christmas episode! Thanks for a new obsession!

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    1. I feel the same way about not feeling like I know a character until I know his/her name. It just grates too when you've picked the wrong name.

      I'm glad you enjoyed DOWNTON so much :) I'm not sure when Season 3 is out, but it can't come soon enough as far as I'm concerned. ESPECIALLY, after that Christmas episode :D

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  8. Yep, I'm one of those crazies who likes character names to be significant and meaningful as well. In fact, I wrote the whole first quarter of WHERE POPPIES BLOOM referring to the love interest as BOY because I hadn't come up with the perfect name for him yet. Thanks for the naming resources. I'm a big fan of the Baby Name Wizard, but I haven't tried some of the others yet.

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    1. Well, join the club of crazy, Katy :) I spend far too much time coming up with just the right name with just right meaning. That's time I should be using writing. :D

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  9. Names are important. And I LOVE it when there's meaning behind them... meaning that connects with who they are. It's way fun to research meanings and origins and etc... I'm not having any more kids, so I'll have to save all the research for characters :D

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    1. I kind of love researching this kind of thing, though it does take me an awful long time and cuts into time that I should be using writing.

      I have a separate list of names that I'd like to use for our future children, and I don't use those in my story :)

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  10. Nymbler is another cool name generator - you put in names you like and it comes up with additional options. I also use the Social Security Name database - I'm writing a historical piece so I want to see what the most common names were of the time, (and a few farther down the list, of course.)

    I just started watching a TV series and one of the characters is Zoe. My husband and I looked at each other and said, "Of course it's Zoe." Because there's always a freaking Zoe. Another over used name is Maggie. It happens to be my mom's name, so maybe that's why it's noteable. For awhile my mom and I kep a list of all the movie and TV characters named Maggie. It's a LOT.

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    1. Yeah, I saw both Nymbler and the Social Security Name database when I was looking for good name sites. I'm glad there are so many useful resources available for this kind of thing. :)

      It's funny how certain names just keep cropping up over and over again. I try to pick somewhat original names, but I know it will never be possible to avoid picking a name that's already been used. Frustrating, though, when it comes up in something like your own story O_o

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  11. I am completely obsessed with names as well. I do the meaning thing too ... if I like the sound of the name, but not the meaning, I just can't bring myself to do it!! In those instances maybe I'll tweak the name a little, or find a different root word to base it off of (which yes is sort of OCD because it's not like anyone but me is going to know, but dammit it Matters to me! Must find perfect name even if it takes weeks to do so!) I am a huge fan of simple, easy-to-pronounce yet unique names, which of course makes it even harder! But worth the effort ... I like to think anyway =)

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    1. Okay, I couldn't help laughing because this is EXACTLY like me :D Too funny! I thought I was the only crazypants person who obsessed over these kinds of things. Apparently not :)

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  12. Naming my characters is a huge part of my writing! Sometimes I'll wait until I have my character fleshed out a bit more, before tying a name to him / her...and sometimes, a name just magically appears and I know it's the one. But once I come up with a name, I then like to find pictures on the web of what I think my character looks like. If the name just doesn't quite work, I'll look at other options. But usually by the time I've written a few chapters, I'm sold on the name and it stays.

    I like to use Seventh Sanctum to come up with names, character attributes, etc.:
    http://www.seventhsanctum.com/

    Great post, Jaime! Oh, and you're lucky you got a tax refund...we owed this year. Boo.

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    1. I do the same thing--finding pictures online of what my character looks like in my head. All of this is important in connecting to my character, in my opinion (at least that's how my process works).

      I hadn't heard of Seventh Sanctum before, I just checked it out--very cool--and bookmarked it. Thanks for the tip :D

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  13. I use Seventh Sanctum as well and random baby name websites to help me with names. I usually have the most trouble with last names. My main characters usually come with their names already, although originally I tried to make the love interest anything but Cassidy/Cass because I didn't like it. LOL I tried to make him Ryan, Tristan, David, James, etc...but nothing stuck but Cass (Cassidy). So he's Cass. LOL

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    1. Not all of my characters have last names, but the ones that I did choose were a total pain in the bum to come up with. Worse than first names, actually.

      Cass totally works great as a guy's name. I'm super partial to Tristan (but I'd save that for my own kid eventually). :D

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  14. Great post! I look at name meaning but usually only loosely select a name based on it. If the name is close enough to what I want it to be, then it works. Otherwise, the way the name feels in my mouth and sounds when I say it is probably the most important thing to me.

    Also, I've yet to have to rename a character but am seriously considering it for one right now. It's so hard!

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    1. As much as meaning is important to me, it has to sound good as well. Otherwise, it will just drive me nuts.

      Having to rename a character is no fun, especially after you've come to know them by the first name. Sometimes it just feels necessary, though. Like if I decided to call a character Tris (I didn't), and then something as awesome as Divergent came out before my story went anywhere, I'd definitely change it. :)

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  15. I love this topic! And I love looking through names, though I'm more into how appealing the names sound to me, haha. I have a bizarre system of choosing what names are most euphonious to me, though, so no one'd really see any sense in it... Oh, and I love the website Baby Names as a resource, too. :)

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    1. The names I choose definitely have to sound good and not just have appropriate meanings. Nobody wants to read a story with a character name that sounds just awful. One example recently: In Kristin Cashore's Bitterblue she had a character named Death. Only it was pronounced like we're used to, but like "Deeth". Huh? Every single time that name came along, I pronounced it wrong in my head the first time and then consciously corrected myself. How annoying is that? O_o

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  16. Awesome post! I usually jot down names that I like in a journal so that I can use them later. Or sometimes I'll randomly ask someone to give me a name--without giving them any info about the character. If the name sticks, I'll use it. :)

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    1. I jot down names sometimes too, but usually they're for future offspring and not characters lol :D I've never actually asked anybody to help me pick a name, though. I kind of enjoy coming up with them on my own :)

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  17. It depends on the story for me. For my YA I kinda' just picked names that I liked and that seemed fitting. But for my MG that I'm working on now I spent quite a bit of time on nameberry.com. It's the kind of story where the name's origin does matter, and I wanted the meaning to fit, too.

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    1. I just spend too much time in general picking names for my characters. Not only do I want them to have meaning, I also want them to sound all right as well. This ends up taking WAY too much time away from actually writing the thing :)

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  18. Awesome post! My character names honestly just pop into my head and they just FEEL right so I'm most averse to changing them. It's usually only when I need a foreign name, that actually does need to mean something, that I do extensive research. And here's what's weird - I have sort of a Biblical inspired story (I planned this weird series of paranormals on the seven deadly sins - still may do that) and the names the Biblical names I chose came at me out of the blue and I had no idea the impact they had on my project until I was half way through. So, I tend to just "go with it" and see where the name takes me.

    PS - LOVE the name Callum. If I were to have any more kids, the boy might just get that one. :)

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    1. That series of paranormals sounds really interesting? When do you start writing it??? :)

      I like the way Callum sounds, but I also love that it means'dove' which is a symbol of peace, purity, and the Holy Spirit. It comes from Colum Cille, also known as Columba, the Irish missionary who brought the Christian faith to Scotland. Very interesting stuff :)

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  19. Love your post, and your names! For me, names just tend to happen-- my characters are "born" with a name, look, and personality, and grow from there. I've only had one name change (Jer originally was Tod until my sister forced me to change it. She just didn't like "Tod"s.) I've noticed that my boys lately have been on a biblical kick, though! (Jeremiah, Noah...)

    The most fun, though, had to be naming the Belasco kids in my MG story: Autumn, Winter, and June!

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    1. A few of my characters seemed to crop up with names already, and it was just an added bonus that the names they had seemed to fit them (their meaning too). My husband and I had a bit of a laugh over your Jer/Tod conundrum--> my hubby's name is Todd :) And as for Biblical handles, how about Nebuchadnezzar or Abednego??? lol

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    2. You and your husband will LOVE why my sister didn't like Tod for "He who is now named Jer": She insisted that Tod is too "California" and totally not right for a Jersey boy. I have no idea why Jer is any better... Hmm, considering some of the naming trends in YA nowawdays, maybe I should go with Nebuchadnezzar-- we'll call him "Chad" for short and Abednego could TOTALLY go by "Ego". I can call the MC Shiphrah (Shippy for short.) It'll be the next great love triangle!

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  20. I love the look of your blog with the ink blots. It's probably the most appealing one I've visited (and I've visited hundreds here).
    Rhia from Five Minute Piece for Inspiration (around #777 on A to Z list).

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    1. Thank you very much! It means a lot to me to hear this :)

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  21. That's neat that you factor in meaning when choosing names. I put a lot of thought into what I name my characters (I don't just name them X or Y because that name popped into my head.) For me, it's about the "feel" of the name -- does it feel like the personality of my character? That's how I choose. I find baby name sites to be helpful, too.

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    1. I'm not sure if I would always factor in name meanings, but in this particular WiP I've been pretty obsessed with the notion. The feel of the name, like you say, is definitely important too :)

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  22. I love reading about how other writers pick names! I have no system--I just go with whatever pops in my head. Sometimes I reject the first few, though. I've also noticed that I really overuse names that start with the letters A and J--no idea why.

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    1. Because names that start with 'J' are pretty darn awesome (and 'A' too, incidentally—>my middle name is Allison :D). I like to know how other people go about these kinds of things too :)

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  23. I don´t really have a system either (yet :D) but as you know, I also changed the name of my MC from Laura to Erin because she "felt" more like an Erin...
    By the way: why wouldn´t you choose Jaime? Such a beautiful name!

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    1. My sister's name is Erin :) I think for me (at least in this story) it has to be the perfect blend of meaning, feel, and sound for it to be the right name.

      As for my name: I'd just prefer a name that doesn't feel like a nickname. I'd like a name that can be formal, or it can be shortened down to something more fun. Just something I've always thought :)

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  24. I did a post on this subject, too! (here's a link!)

    I mostly use Think Baby Names for naming characters or looking up the meanings. I love to use the random namer. :)

    New follower here!

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    1. That random namer sounds kind of fun :) I move between a pile of online resources for coming up with names until I find what I'm looking for. It's actually kind of fun :)

      And welcome!

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