How To Name Your Character

Whether you're writing a sprawling novel with scores of characters who travel the globe, or a short stage play about two guys sitting in a bar, you will, at some point or another, have to give those characters names. Or you will at least have to make the conscious decision not to name them. Sometimes the naming process can be simple. Other times, it's possible to get stuck. Sometimes a writer may fall prey, as Laura San Giancomo says in Pretty Woman, to "the pressure...of a name!" Here are some ways to kick start the name-giving process.

  1. Decide how important names are to your story. It's easy to get caught up in finding just the right name for a character. (It's especially easy to get caught up when a tougher part of the writing process -- say, outlining the second act of script -- is your other alternative.) True, a name can help you clarify a character's personality. It can have symbolic meaning. It can add depth to your story. But sometimes, a name is not as important as you think. For instance, I love plays of August Wilson, and I remember what a lot of the characters do and say and fight for. But I remember very few of their names. Some of the names probably had a great deal of significance - but I remember the character's importance without remembering those significant names.
     
    The same is true with popular movies. I love the movie Crimson Tide, but when I think of the main characters, I refer to them as Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman - I couldn't remember their names on a bet. The bottom line is, sometimes a name can be very important, sometimes semi-important, and other times not important at all. So think about how important names will be to your story, and if turns out they're not all the crucial, don't spend weeks and weeks looking for that "perfect" name. Also, realize there may be many "perfect" names for a character. You may have five names on a short list for your main character. It may be that any of the five would work and all you need to do is pick your favorite.
  2. Consider your character's personality and find a name that relates to that personality. My parents have a joke about John Wayne. In almost all of his movies - and this can be checked on the Internet Movie Database - he plays a character named John or Jake. Why is this? Well, it's most likely because, regardless of his specific character, John Wayne was still playing John Wayne, icon of the west. Tough guy. Independent man. Cowboy. And in our society, guys like that just aren't named Marion. Or if they are, they quickly change to the stage names John and Duke! The writers of those old movies knew this and picked tough, manly names for their tough, manly characters. Granted, it probably didn't have to be the same two tough, manly names every time, but you see the concept.
     
    Some names in any society just call to mind certain character traits. For example, short, monosyllabic names call to mind tough, strong or direct people, for example. Other names have different connotations; Lily could be delicate, and Zeke could be a hick. There's no hard and fast rule on what name fits what personality, so go with your gut.
     
    In any case, then, one way to pick a character name is to think about who this person is and find a name that somehow embodies that personality or image. Shrek, for instance, has a sort of guttural sound to it, reminiscent of dreck or wreck. And when you look at the grumpy green ogre, it fits much better than Andrew or Jimmy, doesn't it?
     
    In real life, we don't get to name kids according to their personality, but in writing, we get to know the personality before the character gets a name. Think about the character's personality and it might help with giving him a name.
  3. Let the story mold the name. This is somewhat related to using personality to guide your choices. In this case, you can pick just about any name, even one that doesn't relate to the character's personality, and then let that character's story mold the name. For instance, a tough guy actor is named Marion. His desire to be a tough guy actor has him switch to the nickname Duke, as in the case of John Wayne.
     
    Here's another example. Say you have a character who is fifth generation millionaire and his name is Sir Benjamin Jackson IV. Maybe he is proud or even arrogant about his title and uses it all the time. Or maybe he's trying to hide his background to be a "regular guy" and simply goes by some nickname like Ben. Or maybe your story is about a blueblood who wants to be a rapper, so he has some ridiculous wannabe rap star name. Here, it's not the actual name, but rather the way the character's story shapes it that ends up being important.
  4. Use a name reflective of the character's heritage or background. What is your character's ethnic background? What is his family background? All of these things can play into what you name a character. For example, say you have an African American character. You might pick a generic American name like Bill or Steve, or instead a name often distinct to African American culture, like Dujuan or Tyriq. Or dig deeper into your character's background. What is his family background? What if his mom was a civil rights activist? Maybe he was named after Malcolm X. Was his mom a fan of classical music, too? Maybe she named in Malcolm Amadeus. Hey, that's actually a pretty cool name.
  5. Choose a symbolic name or one with specific connotations- but be careful. Names are often symbolic. And sometimes when they're not even meant to be symbolic, people will read into them. So using a symbolic name can be risky. Calling a character Odysseus, for example, pretty much dictates that the guy is on some kind of journey. Adam, Eve, Job? Loaded! Be careful when using names laden with symbolism.
     
    On the other hand, symbolic names can be used to good effect. A toy cowboy worried about being outclassed by the new plastic spaceman is named Woody. Did Pixar go out of its way to use this symbolic name? Maybe not, but a small touch adds depth. On the sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica, many names have symbolic meaning. Apollo, for example, is the son of the commander. In Greek mythology, Apollo is the son of the chief God, Zeus. There's a symbolic connection, and a pretty obvious one - but it's not over-the-top.
     
    Things like seasons, colors, and weather can have different connotations and can be used well as names. Again, use them with caution so you're not hitting people over the head with the "obvious" hammer.
  6. Hit it right on the nose. On other hand, sometimes obvious is good! In some cases, naming a character can be as easy as identify his or her most obvious physical traits and going with it. Think of the 7 Dwarves. There's nothing symbolic about the name Sneezy. He sneezes a lot! Edward Scissorhands has actual scissors for hands. The Cowardly Lion is an actual Cowardly Lion. What these characters may represent is up for interpretation, but their names are among the most straightforward ones possible. And they work. Depending on the kind of story you're writing, a name that so literally describes a character can work just fine. A fairy tale, science fiction, or off-center story can put these names to better use than a "realistic" story.
  7. Go with the opposite. Sometimes, a sense of irony can help you find a great name for a character. What's your character's polar opposite? What name might represent that opposite? A suicidal woman named Hope might be a little too direct, but you get the general idea. A mafia hitman, a preacher, a fashion model? What names don't seem to "go" with these characters at all? These could, in fact, be the perfect names you're looking for. A little irony goes a long way, though; don't give every character in your story this type of name or the effect will likely be lost.
  8. Forget names. Plenty of stories involve unnamed characters or characters who only have titles. Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" has character simply known as Stage Manager. Williams' "Glass Menagerie" has a character referred to as Gentleman Caller. Sometimes, the unnamed character will be the narrator who brings us through the story. We never learn her name and don't need to. As I mentioned earlier, you may find not all your characters need names.
     
    On the other hand, sometimes anonymity can have symbolic importance. You may be trying to make a point about nameless victims of war, people who are forgotten with time, or something like that. Leaving out a name can often be as big a decision as giving someone the perfect name.
     

Characters stay with us for many reasons -- what they do, what they say, how they remind us of ourselves or what they reveal about the world. The right name can make a character funnier, sadder, more symbolic, or more indelible. Even the choice to leave out a name can add depth to your story.

 

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