For a lot of writers, naming characters is a huge challenge. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration. The mountain of advice on this topic is gargantuan. Character names: shouldn’t be too similar, should fit the character, highlight some virtue or flaw, be ironic or misleading, revelatory, be lived up – or down – to, show relationship…the list is endless. And the reasoning is sound. The right name can deepen characterization, add foreshadowing, irony or mood all while expanding the plot. The name Stan, for instance, is close to “stand” and might indicate personality traits of determination or stubbornness. It might also suggest that, when the climax comes, Stan will not run away. Or, if Stan does run away, his name provides an ironic plot twist.
Character names are among the author’s most subtle, yet effective, tools in communicating with readers, so finding the right one is important. Having just changed the name of one of my characters for the third time, I have experienced the challenges of character nomenclature first hand. My search for the right name led me to some interesting resources.
This site offers just what the title suggests – a list of Latin terms and their English translations. Latin is referred to as a “dead language,” however, many languages today are based on, or at least related to, Latin. English cognates for Latin terms abound. What does all this have to do with naming characters? What is your characters most vital trait? Is she intelligent? Brave? Overly trusting? Consider naming her Ani (Latin term denoting courage and intellect = animus) or Fidela (trusting in Latin = fides). Latin terms, with their softened familiarity, convey meaning subtly, allowing the author to communicate indirectly with the reader.
Using Google (or another) translator can provide interesting character names with an ethnic flavor. Suppose your character is a spy. What traits are vital for a good spy? Also, what is his ethnic background? Combining those two bits of information can yield some interesting name suggestions. A spy has to be observant, and if his grandfather came from Poland, perhaps his last name is Spostragavtche, which is an Americanized (by me, the American) spelling of the Polish word for observant, spostrzegawczy. Obviously, you don’t have to use the exact word, since spelling differs so radically across languages and you don’t want to make the name so hard to pronounce that the reader gets irritated. It’s probably a good idea too, to look up Polish baby names so you don’t end up giving him a first name that clashes with his personality unintentionally. Which leads me to my next resource.
This site offers a comprehensive listing of names by country of origin, with their meanings. The advantages are largely self-explanatory, but one of the main benefits of using “real” names is that they are, um, real. Readers will recognize names like Bob and Ziva for more readily, and be more comfortable with them, than they might with more creative options. So save those options for when they can be most effective.
Much depends on genre. Naming characters in sci-fi may be a bit different than naming them in a cosy mystery. A character named SPARK2000 would probably not fit in well in a gothic romance, just as a pixie named Mary Ellen might seem out of place in fantasy. I should add that naming a character well isn’t just helpful to the reader. Author’s build characters out of air and imagination. Having something concrete, like a name that fits, anchors that character as the author plots the story around and through them.
So – what are some of your favorite character names and where did you get them?