For Shakespeare’s Juliet, “that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” — but for a writer creating characters, a name can be a wonderful opportunity for enhancing character development.
Some writers must have a good character name before writing a the first word of a fictional story; for others, names are a bit of an afterthought. (Or, if you’re like my writer husband, you use the same three character names for every piece until your editor reminds you that some recycling isn’t actually for the best.)
Character names are more important than you might think…for one, having just the right name can offer a sense of context, history, culture, and personality — whereas having an ill-fitting or too-strange name can distract readers.
Here are a few tips for choosing the perfect names for your fictional characters…
- look for names that aren’t too simple or too weird, unless this is for a very good reason
- research the origin of the name; give it meaning
- think about how it sounds in your ear and how it looks on the page
- consider how the character feels about his/her name
- use names consistently throughout (first name, or last name) to avoid distracting or confusing readers
- if you’re writing about someone resembling a real-life person, change the name (as well as other identifying characteristics) to something really, really different
For inspiration and a plethora of name ideas, check out baby-name books, visit the Social Security Web site (where you can search name popularity by year), and search baby-name websites. You could also research the old-fashioned way: Dorothy Parker got her characters’ names from the telephone book and from the obituary columns.
Here are a few writing prompts to get you in the naming mood …
- Write for 10 minutes about how you feel about your own name. Do you like it? Have you always liked it? Why/why not? What would you prefer your name to be if not the one you have? Has your name changed over the years due to losing or acquiring nicknames, marriage, etc.?
- Write a list of your favorite names, both male and female. Next, write down characteristics you associate with these names, physical and otherwise.
- Write down the names of all of your family members and/or close friends. How do their names help define who they are (or not)?