Saturday, August 4, 2012

Discussion: Character names

Inspired by the awesome Michelle Krys's post, I started thinking about character names.

I freaking love names. They fascinate me. I keep a mental list of all the awesome real names I've heard in my lifetime (topping the list are Peter Brilliant, Manley Gage, and Carla Holy).

I don't know if you could get away with a Peter Brilliant, Manley Gage, or a Carla Holy in a novel. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. With character names, I find you have to strike a balance between distinctive and ordinary most of the time. The name has to suit the character to some extent. Not always literally -- don't name a wise character Sophia just because Sophia means wise -- but you have to take the character's parentage and circumstance in life into account when you name them.

For example, the bride of a Medieval king is unlikely to be named Destiny. But a girl born in the mid-nineties? That works. A girl with Buddhist parents being named Mary Catherine? Yeah, probably not. But if she was born into a Catholic family, it makes a lot more sense.

In the early stages of writing, a character feels nebulous to me until I find the perfect name. Once I do, everything comes together. Their personalities often come from their names, in some strange way. Here's a quick sample of this at work in my writing:

Tristan Tennant (protagonist of A BRAVER THING): Tristan is a soft, lilting kind of name, which is definitely how I'd describe Tristan's personality. His nickname is the androgynous Tris, which fits his appearance. His surname, Tennant, is a nod to his Anglophilia -- David Tennant, anyone?

Prince Malcolm (A BRAVER THING): He's the Prince of Wales, so his lack of a surname fits his station in life. He has a bazillion middle names, though, which comes from his royal heritage, too. But his first name, Malcolm, is very unorthodox -- it's Scottish, which is a little bit scandalous for a British prince. But Malcolm himself is a little bit scandalous.

Lauren Alfredsson (protagonist of a new WIP, WONDERFUL): The name Lauren has always conjured up a tall, solidly-built blonde girl to me, so her physical appearance is tied to her first name. One of her parents is from Sweden, which accounts for her surname. Plus I just love the way the name rolls off the tongue... which is handy, since this WIP is written in third person instead of first, so I have to use it a lot more!

So, yeah, I'm curious: if you're a writer, where do your character names come from? How do you pick them? Do they matter a lot to you, or is it more like, if it fits, it fits? If you're a reader, how do you feel about the names of characters you read? Do they matter to you?

Hope you're all having a lovely summer out there! Anyone watching the Olympics? (I am. Rather obsessively.)


  1. Choosing names is dear to my heart too. The name of my male MC in The Big Smoke is Sebastian, which, as a typical Aussie bloke, he hates.

    I'm currently battling with the name game on a much bigger level - I'm pregnant and trying to choose the perfect name for our bub! Once we know the gender, that will narrow the options a little. :-)

    1. I love the name Sebastian!!

      Awww, congrats! A friend of mine just had a baby and they kept all their options a secret until she was born. They went with Natasha -- it was so fun to see what name ended up "winning" :P

  2. I really like this post. I love coming up with names for my characters. The MC in my WIP is named Shelby, Shelby Porter. I just love how country it sounds. It fits because she's from a small town in Louisiana.

    The MC in the current novel I'm querying was originally named Christine Taylor, but I changed it to Amelia Taylor instead because I just love the name Amelia.

    I keep a list of names that I like, and I go with whatever sounds the best.

    1. Shelby Porter is really cute. So is Amelia Taylor. I love the name Taylor, as a first name or a surname. It's average, but still interesting.

  3. When I choose a name, it's just because I like it. I don't think about what a name means or its history. I do contemporary, so I usually look through the social security baby name list. Which especially helps when you need grandparents and parents names from other decades.

    It's hard for me to write, too, unless I have that perfect name chosen. Very rarely do I change a name of a main character once I've gotten into the story.