On the Naming of Characters

Mpepper/ January 28, 2021/ Think Pieces, Writing Advice

This question has come up a lot just recently, so I decided to write a post about it: “How do you name your characters?”

I prefer to have my characters introduce themselves. Sometimes they do that right away, meaning I know their name first thing. Sometimes, though, they’re a bit shy about it, and we play a game of Rumpelstiltskin. I’ll usually know one or two things about the name to get me started. For example, I’ll know the name is one syllable. Or that it begins with a “D.” From there, I have to guess until I get it right.

Sometimes I know the name is similar to a few other names. Not in sound, necessarily; more like in style. So I’ll go to Nymbler and put in the names I know it’s not, but that are the right kind… If that makes any sense. And I’ll see what comes up, narrowing the options down until I have it.

I use Behind the Name on occasion, but mostly when I’m looking for a variant of, or a name related to a name I know is almost, but not quite, right.

When I was a younger writer, I did the thing where each name needed to have a meaning. I searched name books for names that meant “light” or “wolf” or whatever. Now (at the risk of upsetting people who still do this) I see that as an amateur move. Unless whoever named the character (parents, guardians, etc.) gave them a name with a specific meaning for a reason, the author doing so is… heavy handed, IMHO. Still, I’m sure there are times when it’s been done cleverly and has come off as not so over-the-top. I’d simply advise using a light touch with this technique.

Examples from My Work

Peter Stoller’s original name was Stefan (or Stephen). But I wanted to use the title St. Peter in Chains, and it seemed weird that his name wasn’t Peter, so… it was changed.

I’ve used the name Charles a lot, too, in various works (A Game of Hearts, The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, “The Mystery of the Last Line”). It only recently occurred to me that my first [official] boyfriend’s name was Charles, so there may be something going on there…

Guin in Manifesting Destiny got that name because my husband and I nearly gave it to our daughter—but then we fought over the spelling and chose something else entirely. I “won” the fight by using the spelling I prefer.

In “Origami of the Heart,” I used the name Dane because I fell in love with that name as a child after watching The Thorn Birds. I’d kept that name in my pocket, so to speak, waiting for the right character to come along and accept it.

The manuscript I’m currently shopping has a main character named Julian. Originally, he was going to be Jasper, but that sounded too harsh for his gentle nature. He’s reserved, and Jasper sounds more like an adventurer to me. (In fact, Jasper is a name I used in a short story I wrote for a high school English Lit class. Not sure why I remember that…)

If you’ve read any of my books or stories and have questions about the names I’ve used, feel free to ask. And if you’re a writer, let me know how you come up with character names. If you’re a reader, do you have favorite names or naming conventions? Should I do a YouTube video on favorite character names?

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