Characters and Their Names

I’ve always had a rough time coming up with names for characters. When I write non-fiction, it seems simpler. The people I am writing about already have a name–there is no need for me to create one. But to be honest, many of the fictional characters I write about are also based on people that I have met throughout my life, so for me, it isn’t really about whether the name is real or not but that it fits the character.

But how does a writer do that? When I think about names like Harry Potter or Huck Finn, I wonder how the authors that developed those characters knew that the names they had chosen perfectly fit the characters they were given to. Maybe a name like that is a stroke of luck, but through my own research and questioning, I have discovered a few tips to increase your chances of finding that perfect fit:

1) Research Root Meanings

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. – Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare may be right about a rose’s smell, but I beg to differ about the importance of names. Sure, names can be random. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Sylvester Stallone named their kids Apple and Sage Moonblood. And while, like any good English major, I could sit here and create some obscure way in which these names represent the people they belong to, a good writer shouldn’t have to explain that meaning (nor should they ever pick names like Apple or Sage Moonblood–unless, you know, being weird is what you’re going for).

So how do you choose a name that means something?

One way to do this is by researching the root meanings of names. As Brian A. Klems writes in his article “The 7 Rules of Choosing Names for Fictional Characters:”

It’s better to call a character Caleb, which means ‘faithful’ or ‘faithful dog,’ than to overkill it by naming him Loyal or Goodman—unless you want that for comic/ironic purposes. Some readers will know the name’s root meaning, but those who don’t might sense it.

2) Research the Time Period

Klem also points out the importance of researching names in the time period you are writing about:

If you need a name for an 18-year-old shopgirl in a corset store in 1930s Atlanta, you know enough not to choose Sierra or Courtney, unless such an unusual name is part of your story. Browse for names in the era you’re writing. A Depression-era shopgirl who needs a quick name could go by Myrtle or Jane; it will feel right to the reader. Small public libraries will often have decades’ worth of local high school yearbooks on the shelves. Those things are gold for finding name combinations from the proper era.

3) Understand your Character’s Social and Cultural Background

If you are writing about a young, Irish boy living in New York in the 1920s, then it is probably a good idea to start researching traditional Irish names. But you also shouldn’t feel limited by these names. In your research, you may discover that many parents named their sons and daughters all-American names like Jack or Betty to help them assimilate, and so you decide to instead to call your character something non-traditional (and maybe this fact says something about the kind of person Jack or Betty becomes–or maybe not). The point is, research can help you consider all your choices and lead to a name that ultimately represents your character the best.

A useful website to use is BabyNames.com, where you can type in a name and find out the meaning and origin. Just for fun, I looked up the meaning and origin of my own name. Melanie; meaning black; origin Greek. I don’t know if black defines me. Although, my boyfriend seems to think this is evidence of my black soul.

– Melanie Figueroa

Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor-in-Chief at The Poetics Project. She has a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and a passion for stories in all their forms. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

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