What's in a Name? Naming Strategies
Roses by any other name may be just as sweet, but in writing, a good name will make or break a character. Consider these five things when naming your next character.
Don’t Start with the Name
Counter-intuitive, right? In real life, names are often the first thing we learn about a person, but in writing, it’s best to begin elsewhere.
It’s sort of like writing an academic essay: if you’re writing your introduction before writing your body paragraphs—or (god forbid) your thesis, you’re doing it wrong.
Developing your character’s role in the story is like writing a thesis—everything you do to characterize your character should be working to support your thesis—your character’s role. In that way, your character’s name should support your character’s role.
Before getting to names, work on developing your character’s motivation, story arc, and defining desire. For the intrepid boy scout, I suggest settling on the setting and the time period in which your story will take place prior to naming your character.
Names, like low-rise jeans or wide neckties, go in and out of style.
For example, in 1902, the ninth most popular name for girls in the United States was Ethel; in 1952, it was Debra; in 2002, it was Samantha. It’s not that you can’t have a character named Ethel living in 2022, or a Debra in 1902—but it might be worth following the spelling conventions of the era and change Debra to Deborah. Your character’s name should be working to make the world in which they reside come alive, not make it seem less believable.
Some great places to look for popular names based on the era include:
Old high school yearbooks. You can find these moldering in the corner of your local library, your parents’ attic, or occasionally, antique stores. In my home town, the local museum has several old yearbooks on display as well.
Social Security Administration’s popular names list allows you to browse by decade.
Your own family tree. If you, like me, have a weird aunt obsessed with Ancestry.com, you may have an extensive family tree from which you can cherry pick some righteous names. If you don’t have a weird aunt obsessed with Ancestry.com, you can browse the site for somebody else’s family tree, which can be especially helpful when working outside your own ancestry. In my own family, I have a Joehova (like the god) and a Codene (like the drug). I bet you got something just as good in yours.
Remember Dharma and Greg? The show followed the lives and antics of the title characters, polar opposites, who get married on their first date. Much of the dramatic tension and story was driven by Dharma and Greg’s parents; Dharma’s parents spent much of the show high and spouting conspiracy theories, whereas Greg’s parents were well-to-do conservative WASPS. Greg’s parents would never name their kid Dharma—they probably don’t even know what Dharma means, whereas Dharma’s parents would be just as unlikely to pick a traditional (square) name like Greg for their child.
Which is all to say, when choosing a name for your character, your character’s parentage matters. Don’t choose a name your character’s parents would never choose for their child. Not every character’s parents will actually appear in the story, and that’s okay. Good characterization is a bit like an iceberg; most of it lives beneath the surface and informs the what we see on the page.
This is the most obvious place to begin when choosing names, but oftentimes it’s where beginning writers stop—or, worse, they get so turned around in a meaning loop that they get name paralysis and rage quit before they make any real progress. If you’ve considered setting, era, and parentage, you’ll probably be golden—but if you must have meaning, it’s okay to consider it when naming characters, so long as it’s not your only consideration.
Most readers won’t sit down and Google what your character’s name means, but, if it works for the story you’re writing, names that hint at the character’s role can provide a bit of nuance to your story. This is a strategy that’s about as old as writing in English itself.
In Beowulf, English’s first written epic, the envious/general sourpuss servant of King Hrothgar, Unferth, first appears in the story to basically just shit all over Beowulf’s various accomplishments and look stupid when Beowulf proves himself even more accomplished than anybody in Herorot thought. While Unferth reveals himself to be a Class-A Dick as the story unfolds, his status as a not-so-heroic character is foreshadowed in his name; literally translated, “Unferth” means “Un-Spirit,” “spirit” here meaning something like “the spirit of a warrior/a warrior’s way of life” (though this [and basically everything else about Unferth] remains hotly disputed among Beowulf scholars).
Personally, I choose to subscribe to Tolkien’s interpretation and translation, which marks Unferth “Un-Friend.”
What your characters call each other can help characterize them and their relationships with each other. Some writing advice encourages you to keep it simple and not refer to characters by multiple names, and perhaps, if you have a large and winding cast of characters (looking at you George R. R. Martins out there), this is solid advice.
Perhaps your character has transitioned into being a woman, but their disapproving father continues to deadname them; this speaks volumes to the kind of relationship your character has with her father without wasting words on tiresome exposition.
Perhaps your character’s name is too hard for people at her school to say, so they colonize it into something more “American” or “British” sounding; this can say a lot about how a character is treated in the environment in which they live, and can speak a lot to a community’s lazy racism or character’s alienation without literally stating it.
Will your second generation immigrant have a name in their native language and a name used outside the home? For example, a common name for Korean Americans is Eugene because it sounds almost identical to the Korean name Yu-jin. Having a name used at home and a name used out in the world can say a lot about a character’s identity.
Has your character inherited their mother or father’s name? How do they all tell each other apart within the house? In my family, my dad is Thomas the III and my brother is Thomas the IV, but we call my brother by his middle name (Justin) and my father is referred to a diminutive of his middle name (Arthur), and is thus “Archie” to his siblings and parents; to the rest of the world and their spouses, they’re both"Tom.” It’s complicated, yes, but it’s real. If you’re writing a story about family dynamics, such complications might be warranted.
Having each character referring to every other character by a different nickname is obviously heavy-handed and should probably be edited out or simplified, but if your character’s nickname or alternate name is doing characterization work, keep it.