I have been preparing to start a new story, and have been caught for almost a week on one important detail. I couldn’t name my main characters.
I know there are people who will begin writing, using a placeholder of some sort and work out the name later. I am not one of those people. I can see why people might name their characters this way. This allows for the character to develop a little, and then allows the author to name them something that seems to fit them.
That’s not how real life normally works. Most of us have names given to us when we are born. It shapes us as much as anything else in our life. We learn to identify with our name in some way, working to live up to it, fighting against it, or never really thinking about it. A person named Sunny might choose to try to be as cheerful as their name suggests, or might rebel against it becoming a dark person.
I didn’t like my name too much growing up. It’s not like there is anything technically wrong with the name Shannon, but there were things that made it rough. In first grade, there was a boy in my school who shared my name, prompting the other children to tease me that I had a boys name. Of course now I understand the concept of a unisex name, but at the time it was devastating. A little later, the show Beverly Hills 90210 came out, the original one with Shannen Doherty. Having a famous person share my name might have helped to restore the femininity, however she was reported to be, well not a nice person. It didn’t really matter if she was actually quite lovely, my name was now synonymous with a difficult actress. Later in life, I learned that Shannon may have actually been the name of a former girlfriend of my father. This Shannon may or may not have been around when my parents were married.
To me, a name can be important. Maybe I would have felt more confident as a child if I had had a different name. I know I considered my experience when naming my daughters. Having a not-so-feminine name, I gave my daughters more traditionally girly names. Joanna Rose, and Lilyen Faith. Both names are soft, and clearly female names. My daughters are both strong and tough, and not necessarily as delicate as their names might indicate. Knowing them as I do, and knowing their names, I cannot think of them as anyone else. However, if I knew who they were going to be, would I have named them something different? It’s hard to say.
When we name a character, we are naming a person who is at least partially developed as a person. They are not a small lump of wrinkly baby, swaddled in a blanket and thinking of nothing more than their next meal. We name an infant based on their potential, and who we might want them to turn into; a character is named based on who they are, and what they are going to do in the story. I know I am not the only person who looked for a name that has a special meaning, even if not everyone knows it. I have seen message boards filled with people wanting names that mean ‘destiny’, ‘fate’, ‘strength’, or even ‘hero.’ They want a name that somehow tells everyone their character is extraordinary from the beginning. They want us to think that a higher source had a hand in bringing this person to their fate.
There is a bit of a trend for strange character names in modern books. Many of these strange names make a certain kind of sense. A dystopian novel takes place in a different time, and the names are meant to reflect that. Language evolves, names go through trends; it would be strange to read a novel that is supposed to take place several hundred years in the future and have all of the names be in the most popular names of 2014.
More than just fitting a time, we want our character name to be distinctive. If I bring up Katniss, everyone knows who I am talking about, including many people who have never read the books. There is no question that I am talking about the character from The Hunger Games; the name and the book go together. If anyone else tried to use that name in their story now, there would be a bit of a question. It’s like naming a wizard Harry, or a vampire Dracula; some names are, simply put, taken.
So how can you name a character perfectly, distinctively, and with meaning without going overboard? There are three things I consider when naming a character.
First, time period. Going to the past, the present, or the future, the name needs to fit. Some names didn’t really exist in the past, or were not used the same as we use them now; Sandra Dee would not be an appropriate name for a person of the Victorian era. A modern day teenager would not have been named yesterday, they would have been named at least 13 years ago. The names of the future depend on the type of future you are presenting. A steampunk, old fashioned but with technology, type future may have many old fashioned names, whereas a space oriented alien world may have names that seem to come from outer space.
The Second thing I consider is the story. In a video somewhere in the vlogbrothers John Green answered a question about why the character in The Fault in Our Stars was named Hazel. He answered hazel is an in between color, in between green and brown, and Hazel was an in between character, living in between life and death due to her illness. (I don’ think that was a spoiler of any sort, but if someone cared about this book and movie and does not know she is sick by now, I am sorry.) In truth, while reading that book that thought did not occur to me once. I liked the name because it is not entirely common now, and reminded me of a friend of my Grandmother’s who I loved when I was a child and who died when I was 8 years old. Hearing the meaning behind the name, I loved it even more. It didn’t matter that I didn’t get it when reading, it was still there, giving meaning and influencing others.
The final thing I consider when naming a character is their parents. My character might be a very flighty, hippy like, character, but if their parents have always been conservative, her given name is not likely to be Rainbow. It can be a nickname, but her real name is probably something simply like Sarah or Molly. The same can be done the other way. The serious young man with the free love hippy parents is not likely to be named John, he is more likely to be Rain or Forest. No matter what the character is like, you are not the only one who would need to give them their name; they had parents at one point in their lives, parents who would need to have chosen the same name as you did. Even if the parents are never in the story, their role in the characters life is shown in the name they picked for their child.
So how do I name my characters? I pour over books, and look through name databases online. I know many people visit cemeteries, but that is not a common practice for me. I look through genealogical records, anything that might give me ideas. In the end, it all depends on how I feel about the name. When I find the right one, I just know it. Just as when I named my daughters, there is a brief moment when it feels right. I look at the character, with it’s shiny new name, and think, that’s you.