Confession: When I first started writing, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the names I chose. For my first romance novel I named the hero Cole and the heroine Cassandra and I didn’t bother to check whether those names even existed during the time period when the story was set (mid 19th Century South East). All I knew was that I’d read an article about how “strong” romance hero names tended to be “strong sounding” with lots of hard consonants and sharp looking letters. And yes, that’s how I chose the name Cole.
My next two novels both had protagonists with the name Katie. Apparently me and about a million other chick-lit authors all fell in love with that name at the exact same time.
Later, when I sat down to write The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I began with that same laissez fair attitude toward names. The main character’s name was easy: I knew she was the heroine of the story and she grew up in a very religious community and the name Mary — simple, straightforward, laced with meaning — seemed perfect for her. I chose Travis’s name because I’d once had a crush on my friend’s older brother with the same name and I chose Harry because Harold never really sounded like a heroic name to me.
It didn’t occur to me until too late that much of the plot centered around whether Mary marries Harry which is just annoying repetition (especially when read out loud).
But then as my cast of characters grew, I began to develop “rules” for the names I chose and this is when I found a true delight in naming my characters. I found I could pepper the story with clues and easter eggs for the savvy reader.
That’s when I realized that rather than choosing names because they’re fun or the first things to pop into my head, I could imbue more meaning into the story by the name choices I made. Of course, this can often make picking names a much more consuming process (I was waffling on one character’s name up until the book was sent to the printer). But in the end, I think it’s worth it, especially since I enjoy the process!
Below I’ve listed a few things I consider when choosing character names:
1. Think about the community you’re creating and how names fit into it (i.e. The child of religious fundamentalists might have a different name than the child of hippies). If you’re writing a historical, make sure the name you choose actually existed at the time (in both time and place). You can do this by searching through old records (I *highly* recommend the Social Security database that records names by popularity for the last 132 years), borrowing from period novels or historical characters, or just googling the names you like to find their origins.
2. Be aware of how difficult-to-pronounce names might make it tough for the reader to remember or to even talk about with friends. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t choose a name that fits just because it might be difficult, but at least be aware of the issue (and perhaps figure out a way to slip in a pronunciation if possible).
3. Pay attention to repetitions among names. A lot of readers use visual memory with names in that that they don’t pronounce the name in their head as they read it but rather recognize it as a distinct collection of letters. So, two names that might sound very different — Michael & Michelle or Fiona & Diana— could be confusing because they look very similar on the page.
4. In the same vein, look at whether you have diversity in the number of syllables, in the starting letter, in the ending letters, in the middle letters and in the pronunciation.
5. Think about how characters might shorten their names — are they likely to choose a common nickname or something different and unique? Do they go by their last name instead?
6. Be aware of reader expectations (and how those can change). There are some names that are so loaded they can be difficult to use without a compelling reason (ex: Adolf) and other names that take on meaning based on historical events (ex: Katrina). This can also work in your favor — many readers will have a warm spot in their heart for a Calvin because of Calvin & Hobbes.
7. When considering unique names — perhaps for something set in the future or on a different world — I always remember this tidbit from Scott Westerfeld:
But Uglies takes place 300 years in the future. Names probably won’t be the same as now. So I needed something that’s not a current name, but that doesn’t make your brain fritz when you read it. So I chose a regular word in English.
That’s right: “tally” as in “count.” As in “Hey, Mr. Tally-man, tally me bananas.”
Thus, the little spell-checker in your brain doesn’t ping every time your eyes scan across those letters. (And the real-world MS Word spell-checker doesn’t draw a squiggly line under it.) “Tally” is capitalized, of course, so you know it’s a name, but otherwise “tally” reads as a perfectly normal word.
But not too common.
You can read the rest of his advice here. I also think you can accomplish some of the same goals by slightly changing the spelling (which is how I came up with Annah and why I shortened Gabrielle to Gabry).
8. Have fun with meaning. I’m surprised by how much I’ve gotten into the meaning behind names and how much fun it can be! For example, in one short story I needed two names for two friends who play a minor role in the plot and I chose Ruth and Ami — both meaning “friend.” On the other hand, one of the characters in my first book is named Tabitha, also the name of a woman raised from the dead in the Bible, which is a bit of foreshadowing for my own character.
So those are some things I consider when choosing character names, I’d love to hear other thoughts/advice in the comments!