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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,
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.