Creating Characters Part I: Naming

Okay, before I start this, I’d like to make a little disclaimer: I am by no means a professional at writing. I’m 16; I have never had a novel published, nor have I ever taken any creative writing classes. But I’ve learned a lot over the past couple of years, and as a reader, crappy characters are a pet peeve of mine. So I wanted to put together a post to help, along with lots of links to sites written by people who know a lot more than I do.

Let’s start at the beginning: names. For some, the name of their main character is something to stress over, and for some lucky others, it’s a piece of cake. I’m somewhere between—although I usually come up with a name as soon as I have a vague idea of who my character’s going to be, I’ve always felt that names are important and have on occasions spent hours on baby name sites to find that one perfect name.

In my novella DELTA, my main character’s name is Lydia Mason. I’ll admit that I didn’t exactly put a ton of thought into her name, but I chose ‘Lydia’ because I wanted something old-fashioned and classy—the complete opposite of what Lydia thinks herself to be—and ‘Mason’, a much more callous surname, to juxtapose it.  I recently wrote a short story called HAPPENSTANCE where the main character is a girl named Elliot McQueen. I chose a stereotypically “male” name for her but gave her a girly nickname—“Ellie”—because I liked the idea of feminizing something stereotypically male. In my story FAIRY TALES (I swear this is the last of the examples), my main character’s first name is Arielle. The obvious reason is because of its connection to fairy tales, and in the early stages of building her character, that’s what I was looking for—a name that was related to a fairy tale. I could’ve chosen Belle or Aurora or Alice or Anastasia, but I picked Arielle because that’s the one that felt right. Trust your gut—pick the name you think is right. I mean, you’re the writer, after all. It’s your story. You know best.

In saying that, there are a few things to keep in mind. For instance, if you’re writing a story with characters that are non-Western/non-white/non-Christian/not from this time period/all of the above, you should abide by cultural norms of the ethnicity/society/time period you’re writing for. Basically, don’t have a story set in Victorian-era England with a Hispanic girl named Carly. The rules can be bent for futuristic stuff because you’ve invented your own world and thus your own rules, but for past and present time periods, try to stick to cultural norms. Use biblical names if your main character is from a heavily religious family; if your character is from Denmark, give them a Danish name. If you’re writing historic fiction, use names from that time period. (Side note: if part of the plot is that your character is really uncomfortable or embarrassed about not being white/English speaking, I would still give them an ethnic name as their “real” name but feel free to give them a stereotypically American name that they can introduce themselves to others as.)

Some helpful links:

  • NameBerry.com. I use this one probably the most out of the many name databases I have (and trust me, I have a lot). I like this one in particular because the search function (“Find A Name”) is so cool. You can search for a particular name if you already have one in mind, or if you’re still browsing, you can search per culture/origin or meaning, or, if you already know what letter/syllable you want your character’s name to start with/contain, you can search by that. And bonus: you can filter by gender and how common or unusual the name is.
  • BehindTheName. Also incredibly helpful; it gives you history on the names, too. You can search by gender, first letter, or by culture, and filter by meaning as well in the advanced search. (Also, this site has a surname counterpart!)
  • This masterlist of name generators on tumblr.
  • This other masterlist of names from tumblr.
  • This surname masterlist, also from tumblr.
  • This list of Victorian era names.

The next part in this series—which should (hopefully) be up soon—will be on physical aspects. 🙂

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