Picking a name for characters

A name can tell you a lot about the person behind it. Whether that’d be preconceptions or truth for your character is up to you. What name should your character go by? Here’s a couple of things to think about when naming your characters.

At first it’s always a good idea to have the character set up before you name them. That way, you already know which gender your character has and what their family is like. Modern and open-minded parents choose different names for their kids than those who are rather traditional. Religion can also play a role, as well as cultural heritage and the country your character lives in. Looking at names and thinking about what comes to your mind is essential for naming your character.

Your reader will have preconceptions of your character by just looking at a name. They will imagine their looks and beliefs based on that one word that, to some degree, can define a character’s personality as well. When you read a story about a girl called Serpil you’ll probably imagine her in a different way compared to when you read the same story about the same girl who is now called Emma. You can use those preconceptions readers have and work them into your story, make use of them. A name can replace many descriptions if you decide that the preconceptions do match the character.

Names do not only tell us about a character’s heritage, family and gender, they can also give us an idea of how old the character is. Many names that were popular in the 1800s aren’t commonly used today, and there’s also a difference between names that were used a lot in the 1970s compared to the names kids have who were born in the 2000s.

Also, each and every name has a special meaning. You can choose a name by looking at the meaning, but be aware of the fact that names can spoiler a lot. Taking Harry Potter as an example again, it was almost immediately obvious that Remus Lupin was a werewolf - just by his name. Remus is the name of a character in an ancient roman story, Romulus and Remus, in which the two brothers are raised by a female wolf. Lupin is very similar to the latin word for wolf, lupus. The name gave so much of the story away - with another name it could’ve been much more interesting and surprising to find out that he indeed was a werewolf.
However, many names have a way more general meaning. Letitia for example means “joy” or “happiness” which could be values your character embodies. Elena, Helena or Yelena can meen “moon” or “bright light”, according to some sources also “fighter”, possibly matching for a character who never gives up easily and makes her friends’ lives a little brighter.

Once you’ve decided on a first (and perhaps second) name for your character, it’s time to think about a surname. To me, surnames are the more difficult thing to figure out since most commonly used surnames don’t really have a meaning. With surnames, I mostly go for something that sounds nice when combined with the first names. A rule of thumb here is that long first names often sound better with short surnames - and vice versa.

Names are something which always depends on personal taste. The only thing that could possibly go wrong when choosing a name for your character is deciding on a name that hardly can be pronounced. If it’s difficult to read, your readers will always stumble upon it, every time they read it, thus having a really interrupted flow when reading. A name nobody can remember mostly goes hand in hand with a story nobody really remembers. This is especially important to take into consideration when writing about supernatural beings like elves, fairies, orks or any other creature that doesn’t usually have a name like Steve. Those names that you like but that aren’t exactly easy to read could be given to background characters. If it’s a name that is only ever used once or twice throughout the whole story, it shouldn’t really be an issue. Another option would be to give nicknames to your character. If they do have a very complicated name but their easy to read nickname is used instead of it, it’s also not a big deal anymore.

Finally, I’d like to point out that each and every name has a name day. If you don’t know what that is - it’s a day where people who were given that name are celebrated. You don’t have to make anything out of this information, but you could include it into your story. The character might win the final battle of the story on their name day, or their name day and their birthday might happen to be the same day.

On the whole, it all really only comes down to what you like. I mostly decide by sound, taking a name that I always liked and that somehow matches the character (in terms of it being understandable that the parents chose that name for their child). If you really love one rather odd name, go for it. After all, it’s your story and your character. And who knows, maybe your story will inspire many people to give that special name to their children one day.