The Importance of Choosing the Right Name for Your Character

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How much time do you spend choosing your characters’ names? Do you slap on the first name that comes to mind? Do you spend hours poring over name books? What criteria do you use for choosing names?

The right name can make your character; the wrong name can break your character. Everything in your book should be telling a story, helping the readers, conveying something, and names are no exception. They are a key part of unlocking your characters, both for you and for your audience.

Here are some thoughts on choosing names.

First of all, the names should excite you. You are the creator, and you will be the one ultimately spending the most time with them, so make sure you choose names that you like.

What to avoid:

Boring names—don’t settle for  Anna Johnson when Beatrice Kettlewell will bring across your character better.

Confusing Names—avoid strange or foreign spellings, or names that all start with the same letter, and your readers will be less likely to forget which character is which, or get jolted out the story by strange names.

Names with wrong connotations—unless you are looking to use irony with your naming, you may not want to name your strong, practical heroine Arabella, or your skinny man Butch.

Things to Consider:

Origin—if your character is a Frenchman among Englishmen, don’t be afraid to use his name to help bring that out.

Meaning—choose a name with a meaning that has some significance to your character, or hints at what he’s like.

Phonetic Connotations—names like Sharpe, Hawker, and Savage bring to mind very different ideas than say, Pillow, Snow, and Gently.

Things I’ve done:

Collect good names—you can find them anywhere: books, film credits, online resources. Whenever I run across a name I like, I make sure I write it down to remember it.

Experiment with names—don’t be afraid to change around the beginnings and endings of names to find the right sound or impression.

Study other authors—look at the way they use names and learn from them.

Don’t be afraid to change a name if it’s not working—no matter how attached you are to the name, it is always better to have the right one.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of other people’s opinions. Readers will be able to tell you if the name is distracting, if it gave a certain impression, and so on.

 

How do you choose your characters’ names? What are your favorite names from books you’ve written or read?

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7 thoughts on “The Importance of Choosing the Right Name for Your Character

  1. MMH

    Hi Emily,
    I love an aptly named character. Anne Shirley knew the importance of her “e” and Dickens’ names make me laugh, and sometimes squirm. Culture, era, status can all be subtly communicated with a name. I also appreciate names that express irony, like the Veneerings of Our Mutual Friend. I think the key is to not underestimate your audience. Either keep it understated, something to be discovered, or venture boldly intohyperbole. ;). I love your dedication to details like these!!

    Like

    1. The Veneerings are a great example; Dickens knew how to give names, for sure! And yes, do not underestimate your audience. Sometimes all it takes is name that gives a subconscious impression to carry across the character. Thanks for stopping by!

      -Emily

      Like

  2. Love this post. In general names don’t take me long, but they have provided a lot of adventures along the way. I still remember the perfect name I had inadvertently copied from a Dickens book and had to change. Jaeryn, of course, was a happy accidental miss-spelling. Ashley Harrison is one of my favorites. It is culturally appropriate for a boy in the time of my story, and fits his love of music, but is just a little unique.

    A lot of your tips are ones I’ve used. Like a particular meaning–Turlough was chosen strictly for the meaning, (one who aids or assists) though I call him by Terry so as not to confuse people. Or a particular sound. Sometimes I only know it is supposed to start with a certain letter, and that’s all. I’ve even gotten names off street signs.

    Generally the characters come quickly, but if I have a particularly iconic one (Pearlie) I give them a placeholder name (her’s was Dot) until I find one that fits. That took several months.

    Julian was going to be my sister’s name if she had been a boy. I saved that for a long time, wanting just for the fun of it, to bring the Julian that never was into being. I tried it on a character now and then, but it never worked. And finally, in Cruise Novella, Julian is alive and gallant, just as I dreamed. So occasionally you have to wait until just the right character for the name to fit.

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    1. I love how you finally used Julian, and I can’t wait to meet him. 🙂 And Jaeryn is truly one of my favorite names ever. It is just so–Jaeryn.

      I totally understand the feeling when you know the letter a name is supposed to be, or even just the general sound. That’s when it’s fun (and sometimes maddening) to choose names. 😉

      -Emily

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  3. E.M.H.

    I think Emily is extremely good at naming her characters. How about Edwin Harding, Heaven Cassade, or Patrick Flynn for you. When I started my first Book I gave all my characters boring names like Elm, Nathan and Mary, plus it wasn’t a modern story, even though I’ve tried using more interesting names recently, it hasn’t worked the same way as it does for Emily’s stories. After reading this article I’ll be a lot more careful. Thanks Emily!!!
    -Esther

    P.S. I love your books SO much!!!

    Like

    1. Aww, you are so sweet! And don’t worry about old boring names, I did the exact same thing at your age. 😉 Actually, I think Elm is a very good name, on the right person. I may have to use that sometime….

      So glad that you enjoyed the article! Love you!

      -Emily

      Like

  4. Pingback: My Top Five Favorite Character Naming Resources |

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