15 May 2011

Never know what a Name will do

Over the years, I realized that you never know exactly what effect a character’s name will have on others lives. Let me offer a few examples.

I know a married couple who liked the writings of C. S. Friedman. When they got married, they changed their last name to that from one of Friedman’s books. Even after knowing them for years, I still have to remind myself not to look for his old last name but the character name.

Growing up, my real first name was rare. In three counties, I knew of two people with the name, including myself. Of those two people, we each had a unique spelling. While I enjoyed being unique, I sought out others of my name, just so I knew that my name didn’t come from the ether. During my junior year of high school, I heard of this guy starting for the Green Bay Packers American Football team. Maybe you’ve heard of him by now, Brett Favre. The National Hockey League produced two more Brett’s, Lindros and Hull. It created a blink, but a comedian and actress became popular around this time too. Brett Butler. With those four, suddenly I found an explosion of people with my name, though we never came near the numbers of John, Michael, or Matthew.

To make things even more interesting, I find two friends who added an interesting twist to this. One friend married a Brett. Another named her child Brett. (Her sister was none too happy, from what I’m told.)

How does this relate to my writing, you may ask? Here’s how:

We seek unique names for our characters. We’d like for the names to jump off the page and allow the reader to identify with the character, maybe just based on the name. However, we run into problems. Sometimes the name doesn’t align with the character. It feels wrong in the context that we’ve created. At times, our names are too close and even we as writers have difficulty distinguishing between two characters.
Each character should have a unique name, for the ease of identification. However, realize what the area might consider unique, as well. One region might have many people referred to as Mike or Bruce, but another may have only two.

If you’re using the real world as the basis of your writing, choosing unique names is easier than other worlds. We have lists of common names from the census bureau and other companies. Our local surroundings show us our region’s common names. As an example, my job that pays the bills has four men named William in two different departments, plus an upper-level manager who’s also a William.

When you branch to a fantasy world of your creation, how unique a name is really depends on your imagination. Does your world base its names on regular naming conventions like the real world? Does naming all base itself on the Egyptian Pantheon of Gods and Goddesses? Part of your world building might require considering these concepts as you create the common and not so common for the world around the character.

Something to throw out there in thought - does the character move with the local society or against it? Sometimes, a name that flows with the rest of society might be exactly what the character doesn’t need. For instance, a political standout may not want to John Smith as a name. He’d want to stand out as an Aldus or Darien.

Also of consideration, you need to take into account in which era your story is concentrated. If you’ve chosen a period of history where revivals are frequent, children might be more prone to names of the religion. Times like the late sixties and early seventies drew names like Flower, Germaine, and Joy, names that reflected the time. A little research regarding the era will reveal the proper direction to consider. A modern name like Chrysanthemum won’t work during an era known for its Helen’s and Gertrude’s.

While it might be fun, messing with a reader’s mind might not work well. Perhaps, you always have a character with the same name in each town that the protagonist visits. Life becomes easier for you! It’s a brilliant idea. Unless this is a plotted point as the character is followed, it’s not going to go over well with reader or editor.

As you work, consider the name of your character and what effect it might have on the world around it.


  1. Great post, Brett.

    It does take a lot of thought to choose your characters' names. Some come easier than others.

    I know for my male protagonist in my paranormal romance book, I wanted my male vampire's name to mean something. However, I did not want his name to sound like something out of a James Bond movie. Kian, is Irish and so I tried to find an Irish name that had an appropriate meaning. Kian, in gaelic means, 'ancient'. To choose his surname, presented more of a challenge. I found geneology sites most helpful. Since my setting had been chosen as Drogheda, Louth county, Ireland, I simply searched for surnames that resided near that area during the 1600's. MacTiernan was one such name. That was how I named my first vampire, Kian MacTiernan.

    The female protagonist was a bit simpler. I represented her appearance as well as her part in the story by giving her a German surname and Irish given name. Darcy, her first name, means dark one or dark haired. Engel means angel in German. And so Darcy Engel was a dark haired angel that tempted my ancient vampire Kian.

  2. Great advice. I sometimes struggle with naming and find myself trying to hard to choose something new and different when I'd be better off looking around me for inspiration.

    I've just started writing more posts on my own blog over at www.helenfrench.net/blog, so I hope you don't mind but I'm going to add you in on the links over there.