For some people, the biggest struggle—aside from titling a story and actually writing the
story—is naming their characters. Admittedly, this is a difficult process, because it’s never the same. Some days you’ll sit down to create a character and the name just hits you out of nowhere: “oh, that’s Teagan and this is Joe Bob Billy Boy II.” Other days you sit there and have a staring contest with the little brats, trying to convince them to give up their names. And some days, they legitimately don’t have a name and you have to scan the internet and scare anyone who touches your phone or computer into thinking you’re pregnant while you’re searching through baby names.
So there’s the question: What’s in a name?
What’s so important about a name?
Is anything actually important about a name?
Everyone has a different point of view on the matter. Some people mark down a historically accurate name or make one up. Others, like myself, believe that a name is just as important to revealing character as actions, dialogue, or thought-life.
Why are Names Seen as Important?
Many societies of people believed that names and their meanings were vitally important. They believed that a name could mold the future of the young child, and that a name formed self- image and expectations that could be placed upon the young person.
Thousands of cultures observed this believe, ranging from the Hebrews in Biblical times to even the Native American tribes existing today.
They all believed that a name meant something, that your name said something about you and the person you would become. For example, in the Bible Jacob (meaning The Deceiver) had his name changed by God to Israel (meaning Power in God).
In other cultures, particularly in early Chinese and various African tribal traditions, a child would be given a generic name at birth, nicknamed early on, and earn a series of various names as they grew up through their actions observed by others. Only in a adulthood would they receive their final name, a name often chosen by others to match some aspect of their personality, and with this name they would often be given a totem or spirit guide. This was also generally true for many early Native American civilizations.
Throughout history, names were regarded as important symbols of self. In my writing, I would agree. The names that I have found which best fit my characters, are those which carry meaning to both yourself, as the writer, and the character.
Three Types of Characters
The process of choosing character names, as I stated at the beginning of this article, is an ever-changing and frustrating thing. More often than not, the process of naming them is based on how cooperative of a character I’m poking with a stick.
Some of them come with names already attached. For example, I have a side-lined project entitled Vagabond concerning a time-traveling woman held hostage by a sentient garden. In this story, she’s been searching through time and space, living among worlds and worlds of people, trying to find herself a home—a place of belonging, a family.
This character came with a name attached. At the time, she didn’t realize that was her name. It was simply what the Garden called her when I created her. The Garden called her Wanderer. Me, being me, I thought that was a pretentious mouthful (despite being accurate). Thus, now, her name is Wanda.
Other characters, like Mari, from Venor, come with no name and their names evolved. Mari is a young woman grown up in a king’s harem and longing for escape. When I first created her, she was a blank slate, feeding me details about her life. But not even she knew what her name was.
At first I called her nothing. For a time, I called her Narah, meaning queen of wolves. But as the story and character developed, this didn’t fit. At some point, I thought I wanted to call her Samurai. In various languages, people with this name alternated between the meaning of servant and nobility—both of which fit to some extent.
But this still wasn’t her.
At some point, I became aggravated by all the stand in names and decided that I would name her Mari. It wasn’t until later that I looked at the meaning and the history behind that name and realized it meant truth, which was very befitting of the character.
Yet other characters remind me of the Grinch. You don’t want to touch them with a forty-nine and a half foot pole. So you poke at them from a safe distance and beg for anything they’ll give you.
In yet another side-lined project, Destruction of Kings, my fantasy political thriller, I struggled with this with one of my main characters. The point of view character, Daegan, came to me name and all.
But his counterpart was more difficult. His counterpart was a woman who had spent much of her life in hiding as a refugee. She was meant to be queen, and only just beginning to secure her father’s throne once more (years after the assassination that killed both her parents). Her people called her Silence—everyone, even her living relatives. It had been given to her after the assassination when she’d struggled with traumatic mutism, unable (or perhaps unwilling) to speak for years.
I wrote three partial drafts calling her Silence, and it bothered me to call her that just as much as it bothered Daegan. But I didn’t know what her name was. Not until I began reboot number four.
When I began yet another reboot (to everyone’s dismay), almost six years into the development of this still unfinished project, I decided that I wanted to do a prologue from Silence’s point of view. This was something I’d never done before. I’m not generally very comfortable writing from a female point of view, especially not with certain types of characters. Yet—something about the story called for it, said you need this to build the world, to understand her.
Writing that prologue unlocked so many unknown details of this young woman’s deeply tragic backstory that I hadn’t unraveled before. And, it gave me a name—Mariella. Which, if you trace the name back through history, is Hebrew. It means “to raise up.”
And I know that none of you know anything about this character (because I’m very stingy with the story, sad days, yes, I know), but one day, if you do, you will understand how very well this name fits her, and you will understand just how much it speaks to the person and the soul within.
What’s my Process for Naming Characters?
My process for naming characters, as I’ve stated, changes per the character and by the day. However, I will give you a few bullet points below that speak to how I decide on characters’
- Evaluate the character. Do they already have a name? Then, I don’t want to force one on them—job done. If they don’t have a name, are they character type two who has no idea what their name is, or are they character type three who will stab me in my sleep to keep me from finding out their name.
- Evaluate the genre. Am I writing fantasy? Then it’s acceptable to have names with odd spellings and deep meanings that other people constantly wonder how to pronounce. Am I writing historical fiction? Then I need to make sure that the names I’m shooting for were ones actually used in that time period. Am I writing futuristic, dystopian, or military style fiction? Then it’s usually okay to have more random names like Maverick, Sunshine, Four, or Pony-boy.
- Evaluate the character’s culture. Am I basing my culture off of Ancient Rome? Then I need to search names based in that section of history and alter them to suit my purposes. Am I basing my culture off of Ancient Greece? Persia? China? Japan? Same goes. Then, Google “female/male names from * preferred country *.
- Evaluate the character’s personality. What do I want people to remember about this character? Do I want them to remember some aspect of their personality? Do I want them to remember a theme or idea or image that was meaningful to this character? Something else? Once I’ve decided what that thing is, I come up with a few key words and literally Google search it. You’d be surprised how helpful this can be.
- Letters. Do I have a particular letter that I associate with this character in my head? Do I want the name to begin with a consonant or a vowel? Do I want it to have a specific sound in my head to match with some aspect of their personality? It’s not uncommon for me to randomly choose a letter and scan through a list of male/female/gender neutral names that start with that letter and make a list of ones I like.
Once I’ve evaluated all these things and made a list of the names that I like, I simply go through the list and see if I can find the one that feels most comfortable, the one that my character responds to, the one that I look at on the page and just know in my gut that’s it, that’s the one.
Exceptions to the Process
Those of you who know me well know that my personality is a huge bucket of snark waiting to dump on your head after you get past the miles and miles of socially awkward nerd. If you don’t, you do now.
The process of naming my characters is no exception to this.
Exhibit A: I have a character named Jean.
Most people pronounce this name like John. Where I grew up, it’s pronounced like Gene. I literally named this character Jean simply because I wanted a moment in the book where I could do this:
Because I’m obnoxious and I find that funny.
Exhibit B: I have a black-market salesman/jungle guide named Hesutu. His name literally means “the one who picked up the yellow jacket nest.”
I just want you to take a minute and imagine that conversation.
Savanna’s Process for Naming Characters
One place that I often like to research names is the website https://www.behindthename.com/.
With Smoke and Mirrors (https://www.amazon.com/Smoke-Mirrors-Savanna-Roberts/dp/1724002686/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1550773689&sr=8-1&keywords=smoke+and+mirrors+savanna+roberts), most of the characters came to me with names intact. It was originally a fantasy, then had two different steampunk trials. Finally, dystopian ended up being the best genre for it. Rhianna was a name that I had through every single version of the story, whereas Penn showed up in the third trial. Month, one of the side characters, had her name back in the steampunk drafts. The others—Deric, Miriam, Calvin, and Christina showed up, much the same, with names attached and personalities ready to be explored.
Je Te Veux (https://www.amazon.com/Je-Te-Veux-Savanna-Roberts/dp/179545203X/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1550773735&sr=8-1&keywords=je+te+veux+savanna+roberts) was mostly the same. I wanted to have a character named Sara at some point, but the name didn’t fit any of my stories until I wrote Je Te Veux. I don’t remember how Tom’s came about, but I remember thinking that I wanted a very docile name since he’s the god of peace. I also wanted him to have a nurturing personality. I went through a few different names in my head and online before selecting it. I remember though, it just sounded right.
The names in the fantasy duology I’m currently writing are a disaster. Vivianna and
Reeve I found by searching for unique names on Pinterest. Tyde was one of my favorite names growing up—and since he lives on an island, it seemed appropriate. Kallimene, Nex, and Fiatina… I literally wrote the alphabet on a piece of notebook paper and mashed letters together until I liked the names I came up with. Fantasy names kill me, man.
Me: I am an author with a great imagination so I should be able to come up with legit names!
Five minutes later: *furious scribbling * a b c d e f g…
How do you name your characters? Do you have a system? A certain place that you go to
research? Are there names that you like that you wish you’d see used more in fiction? Are there names that you hate now because you see them so often?
~ CS Taylor
CS Taylor was raised on the fairy lit roads somewhere between the backstreet alleys of Jackson, Mississippi, and the jazz infested avenues of New Orleans. Now she’s settled in the open meadows of Iowa where the tulips grow thicker than the grass. She spends her days teaching special needs and gifted children to read and write, and spends her nights star gazing and ignoring her writing. She graduated from Sterling College in 2016 with majors in Writing and Editing and Research Psychology. She graduated from University of Nebraska (Omaha) with her terminal degree in Writing and Editing December of 2017. From there, she plans to follow the River, Muse, and darling, that could take her anywhere.
You can find her anywhere here: