Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Writing Advice: 4 Tips for Effectively Naming Characters

One question I get asked rather frequently is: how do you come up with names for your characters? Here are some of the techniques that I use that I hope you will find beneficial.

In this post, we’ll discuss these techniques:
  • Pick a name with significant meaning
  • Scramble two words together
  • Use sounds with phonetic emphasis
  • Seek inspiration from similarly-sounding names

1. Pick a name with a significant meaning.
Think about what words describe your character. These may be concrete descriptive words like fast, strong, blue, scales, fur, warrior, or judge; or they may be more abstract words like wisdom, meekness, idealistic, wrath, spirit, or virtue.

Use your online search engine to research names with whatever word meaning you have selected. I highly recommend the website Behind the Name, as you can refine your search to gender, ethnicity, meaning, popularity, and more. This is a free, invaluable tool at your writing disposal.

If your character is of a certain cultural background, consider picking a name (first and last, if applicable) that accents that fact. This is especially important for maintaining realism in historical fiction. In the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, for example, a majority of the characters have culturally English names (William, Elisabeth, etc.).

Also consider names that hold allusive value. These require knowledge of your story’s overall themes and what the characters in question symbolize. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, Hester names her daughter Pearl, a reference to the “pearl of great price” that Hester paid when she committed adultery. Another, perhaps more subtle, example can be found in the Death Note franchise where the two central characters are named L (el being the Hebrew word for God) and Light (a nod at the name Lucifer, meaning “light-bringer”) respectively. As the story of good and evil unfolds, backed by numerous other biblical references, the names begin to unveil subtle, significant value.

Some names have more literal meanings. Aslan, the great lion from the Chronicles of Narnia, is named from the Turkish word for “lion.” Disney took a similar approach with their lion character Simba, whose name means “lion” in Swahili. 

2. Scramble two words together.
This technique is very useful if you have a fantasy-like series where characters have rather fantastical names. The trick is to take two words that describe the character and then select half the letters from each word, combining them in order to form a name.

I used this technique when coming up with my character, Kaegar. I took the words anger (he is a very aggressive character) and hawk (he is a human/hawk hybrid) and took individual letters from each (k and a from hawk, and e, g, a, and r from anger).

3. Use sounds with phonetic meaning.
Think about how your names sound and if they contain any “words” within them. In Brian Jacques’ novel, Mattimeo, the villain’s name is Slagar; notice the prevalence of the word slay within the name.

Certain letters give off certain vibes. The letters k, z, t, d, and r—for example—are all harsh sounds that resemble growling or barking. The letters s, l, h, and y are smoother and more elegant; they slide off the tongue. Vowel sounds are pleasant to the ears and help tie these consonants together to form a picture. Consider Emperor Ublaz, the villain of the novel Pearls of Lutra. His name uses a harsh z sound, combined with an elegant l and a synthetic. The overall auditory impression conveys the image of a powerful and cruel, yet dignified, individual.

4. Seek inspiration from similar-sounding names.
Some names hold unfathomable power—they’re solid, compatible names that just sound good. If you find a name that really rings a knell in your mind, chances are it’s going to sound that way to others as well. Even more significant, if you find a name that’s very suitable (the kind of name you wished you’d come up with first), you can glean inspiration from it in order to craft your own, original name.

For example, say you’re reading/watching The Lord of the Rings and you find yourself taken by the names Aragorn and Celeborn. The alignment of the consonants brings out such an elegant power. You can examine the names for the specific phonetics that stand out to you and splice your own name together. Take the “ele” from Celeborn and the “ar” from Aragorn and throw a couple original letters in there and you get… Elethar. 

Keep in mind that you don’t want to imitate names too closely. Don’t go naming your character Eragon in homage to Aragorn. People can and will notice the similarity, regardless of how beloved your character eventually becomes. Regardless of how much I enjoyed the Inheritance Cycle, the fact that Eragon and Aragorn were so similar never left my mind.

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