I already wrote another post on character names. But I felt it wasn’t as complete as it could have been. So here is a sort of part two.
Some authors don’t even start writing if they don’t know the name of their characters.
Others write a full first draft or even more using working names. Then they finally come up with a name that is the natural result of their staying with the story for such a long time. The name reveals itself, we could say.
Now, probably names aren’t among the most important aspects of a great novel–but many great writers work on them a lot nonetheless. The fact is, the wrong name could ruin the effectiveness of your story.
Luckily, to come up with solid names it’s enough to bear in mind some basic principles.
Keep it simple
It doesn’t matter if someone’s name is particularly long. Or too short. Above all, a name shouldn’t be too difficult to read and pronounce.
Of course this has to do with your intended audience. With foreign names this principle could be difficult to follow at all times. But it is still worth pursuing. For example, for an English speaking readership Cheng is far easier to pronounce than Ghoochannejhad.
On doppelgangers and twins
Sometimes, in real life it happens two or three colleagues have all the same name–I’m speaking from first-hand experience on this. But real life doesn’t give a damn about novels, writers , and readers. Real life is just what it is. An often chaotic sequence of only vaguely related happenings.
Instead, when we write fiction it would be wise to avoid giving the same name to two different characters. The reason is simple. It can cause unnecessary confusion. However if you have a strong reason to do so (really?!) go ahead and give each and every character in your novel the same name.
As a piece of experimental literature I think it has already been done. But, truth be told, I’m not particularly eager to find out about this…
Always in real life, parents give their children all types of names. Occasionally, some of such names make me cringe, while of others I think they would perfectly serve as prompts for horror tales of madness and derangement.
But again, chances are those parents weren’t planning to become renowned authors. So, unless you have, again, a reason to give one of your characters some inexcusable names, please do think twice.
John and Tom and Harry and Ellen and Sarah. Maybe they are all too common names. As a result, for some authors they don’t convey the uniqueness of the characters they want to write about. But at least these names don’t stick out like sore thumbs.
Besides, maybe, just maybe, authors could convey the uniqueness of their characters in different ways.
Mint brand new names
You can invent names. And in many cases you should. For example in fantasy and science fiction this is quite common. But names are never invented simply jumbling together a bunch of letters. Just think about how painstakingly Tolkien worked on the linguistic part of his works to create names that were consistent and effective and mostly easy to pronounce.
Cheat and use technology
If you can’t invent names, you can try some name generators. Scrivener has one integrated into its engine. I sometimes use it to get some suggestions. But then from those suggestions I go on and come up with names of my own.
Also online you can find several websites offering name generators. Some are better than others. Some are more oriented toward certain types of names. Often they offer also a sort of character general description. To start, you can try these out:
Just as the generator offered by Scrivener, I think they too should be used as a starting point. In fact, names are linked deeply to the setting of the story you want to narrate.
For example, the period in which the events take place can shift your potential choices away from the names you would have initially thought of. Social status is also an important factor in the choice of a name. This was especially true in the past. But still today certain names tend to appear more or less often depending on the social strata people pertain to.
So, to make sure the names you choose perfectly blend with the context of your story and yet manage to signal some inner and important characteristic of your protagonist, you can consult old newspapers, obituaries and whatever source you can find about the period you’re interested in.
You can also search popular names by decades and geographic areas on line. However it is always a good idea to double check the results of both hand compiled lists of names and computer generated lists alike. To do so can be tricky. Because online it is often the case that many different websites all use the same source of information.
So, ultimately, the best thing you can do to create meaningful and memorable names for your characters is to keep a list of names you find interesting and write them down as soon as you come across them.
You should also deepen your understanding of linguistics, to be able to come up with new original names that sound as organic and legitimate as traditional names.
Finally, remember that in Tom Jones by Henry Fielding the main protagonists are Tom and Sophia.
I read the book many years ago. But I remember chuckling quite a lot and reading with gusto. I never thought about the names. Not for a single second. Not because they were banal. But because they were simple and effective.