I’ve noticed a growing and concerning trend among writers when they’re developing a cast of characters. In an effort to make a protagonist memorable, they slap on a unique, edgy, and complex moniker and call it a day. The conviction that names carry more significance than just a pretty string of letters has been lost.
In the Garden of Eden, the first task God gave to man was naming the animals. Adam joined God in an act of sub-creation, treating each animal as special and endowing it with an identity. As storytellers, we face a similar responsibility every time we birth new characters, and the names we use (or invent) have a lasting impact on how readers view them. Here’s why.
1. Names Connect Authors to Their Characters
Somewhere in the process of creating a character, she’ll stop being a collection of impressions and morph into a three-dimensional being. You work tirelessly for this moment, because once you fully understand her, describing her thoughts and actions in various situations becomes much easier. A name provides a foundation upon which to build the rest of her personality, and if you fail to choose one that fits, you may struggle to bring her to life.
The film The Man Who Invented Christmas shows Charles Dickens deep in the throes of crafting his timeless masterpiece, A Christmas Carol. In one of the most engaging scenes, he’s pacing the floor, trying to concoct a name for his protagonist, and he remarks to his maid, “Get the name right, and then, if you’re lucky, the character will appear.” The instant that Scrooge slips from his mouth, the character dramatically enters the room, and Dickens says, “Mr. Scrooge, how delightful to meet you, sir.”
While you can’t expect this phenomenon to happen in the real world, it mirrors a truth that many authors experience. Finding the right name for a character can mean the difference between a flat, faceless silhouette and a vibrant individual. When I started sketching out the idea for my current novel, I had trouble getting inside my male protagonist’s mind. I wasn’t sure why until I realized I didn’t know his whole name. Once I settled on a suitable one, he became tangible.
But how do you determine whether a particular name complements a character or not? Run it through these checkpoints:
- Research the name’s etymology, either through baby name books or the internet.
- Consider the name’s past. For example, people usually avoid the name Adolph even though it was once fairly popular.
- Ask yourself how the name makes you feel or what images it pops into your head.
- If you picked the name at whim, brainstorm a list of possibilities instead, and see whether any of those match the character’s personality better.
Basically, focus on who you want the character to be—her thought patterns, worldview, likes and dislikes, and faults and virtues. Does her name reflect all of that? If it does, then you’ve jump-started a compelling character.
2. Names Reveal Who Characters Are
A character’s name offers the first clue to who she is, not only for the author but also for the audience. Before readers see her interact with her surroundings, obstacles, and other characters, they learn her name, which communicates a huge amount of information in a small package. Names, after all, have meanings. Whether readers are aware of it or not, they’ll interpret characters according to those connotations.
The effect is twofold. First, every name comes with a history, both in fiction and reality. Readers might be unable to specify why John is different from Manuel, but they assume facts about John that they won’t about Manuel, and vice versa. Second, a name’s inherent symbolism can influence the character who bears it. The original meaning of a name may seem irrelevant, but it isn’t. It deepens the character and mimics God’s design.
In the biblical narrative, names were intertwined with purpose. Often, when a person underwent a transformation, God changed his name as a sign of that renewal. Abram (“high father”) became Abraham (“father of many”), Jacob (“supplanter”) became Israel (“God contends”), Simon (“he has heard”) became Peter (“stone”), and Saul (“asked for”) became Paul (“humble”).
God named and renamed people to indicate the paths they’d be traveling. Writers, however, spend vast amounts of time stressing about their characters’ quirks, preferences, and habits. But a character isn’t just a composition of details and a Myers-Briggs personality type. She has a soul. And the right name can put it on display.
Imagine how your target audience might perceive the names you’ve assigned to your characters. What cultures, attitudes, and lifestyles do the names convey in general, and why? Whichever names you decide on, you’ll shape your characters and speak to your audience simultaneously.
3. Names Can Either Enhance a Story or Hinder It
Every writer dreams of making their characters so compelling that readers remember them long after they’ve returned the book to their shelves. Attaching a memorable name to a memorable character seems natural—even mandatory. But a complicated, unique name won’t necessarily guarantee that the character stands out.
While bizarre names are most prominent in fantasy, they can appear in almost any genre. The more odd names you include, the more likely they’ll blur together and become a stumbling block for readers. Names with strange spellings require extra mental effort to pronounce and keep track of. For instance, Maryse from The Mortal Instruments series could be pronounced Mare-riss, Mar-eye-z, Mary-sa, Mah-reese, or Mah-riss-a. And how are readers supposed to know which? Without guidance, the name becomes a distracting guessing game. Even if you don’t care whether readers’ pronunciation is correct or not, they shouldn’t have to waste time wrestling over it.
Though I’ve cited an extreme example involving a minor side character, a name should always add to, not detract from, your story. Complexity won’t raise a name’s value. Forcing syllables together or inserting Ys, Zs, and Vs may look cool on the page, but it only frustrates readers.
Tolkien is famous for the myriad of names he coined for Lord of the Rings. At first glance, his tactics might seem to refute my point—but the opposite is actually true. Tolkien was a linguist who understood the mechanics and evolution of language. So, while a large percent of his character names are entirely original, each one follows logical patterns of phonetics and spelling. You can avoid problematic names by doing the same.
Tolkien represents a golden standard of name creation, especially for fantasy. But his approach isn’t unreachable; it just requires time and practice. If you want a distinct name for your character, aim to make it as accessible as possible. Listen to how it sounds. Simplify the spelling. Readers will thank you.
Small but Mighty
Characters are the heartbeat of your story, and when they resonate with readers, what happens to them almost becomes inconsequential. Who they are determines why you’re writing the story, and the first step in giving them breath is finding the right names.
Pulling names at random from your brain (or a hat) skips over arguably the most crucial part of character creation. When you take time to be intentional with names, you’re emulating the same attention to detail as your Creator. And whether readers are fully conscious of it or not, they’ll sense the additional layer of authenticity.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.