The Secret to Naming Characters

This is something that pops up from time to time on the writing boards: How do you choose names for your characters? Writers are desperate for a magic formula, a secret for coming up with perfect charcter names. Well, I have it.

A character’s name represent just a few words out of a hundred thousand. But these few words some writers labor over incessantly. It’s like a religious experience. A character’s name represents that character. It’s arbitrary, but at the same time immensely important. Some writers even get so obsessed with finding the perfect name, the one that represents their character to a tee, that they find they can’t choose. They hate naming characters, because whatever name they choose isn’t good enough. I want to solve that problem.

Quick! When you meet someone, what’s the first thing you notice? Probably his sex. Maybe the color of his hair or how tall he is. As you get to know him, you’ll come to identify him with his personality. Have you ever, upon meeting someone, drawn any conclusions about him based on his name? Probably not. Names are only affect our opinions of people we’ve never met. But as authors our job is to introduce the audience to our characters. If we’re doing our job correctly, no one’s going to care about their names.

Pick up any good tutorial or reference on character development. Does it mention character naming? Probably not. Neither Orson Scott Card’s Character & Viewpoint nor Holly Lisle’s Create a Character Clinic does. If you read through these, you’ll think characters don’t even have names. Indeed, in some stories, they don’t. Yet even in these, we feel we know the character, because the author has introduced him to us.

HOWEVER…

Sometimes we can use a character’s name to identify his nationality, bringing in with it all of the stereotypes of that nationality. What if I—without telling you anything else—named a character Tahib El-Qadar? You’d immediately get an image in your mind of what he looks like, his culture, and maybe even his opinions. I could then start manipulating that image, introducing him to you. Many of your preconceived notions will prove to be correct. Some will need to change.

And then there are exceptional cases. When Robert Heinlein in his novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress names the main character Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis, we immediately realize he has a varied heritage and lives in a society in which this fact is the norm.

Character names are like any other words in a story. Choose them carefully only if they’ll make a difference. Otherwise, don’t sweat. Just pick something and move on. It’s much more important to develop the whole of the character than to obsess over a few little words. That’s the big secret to naming characters.

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

Catch me on:  my web site Facebook Twitter 

Comments

[…] Writers often waste too much of their blood picking names for their characters. Even so, character names can be used to enhance the story. Here are some ways to pick meaningful character names. […]

[…] Names The Secret to Naming Characters Name That Character! NaNoWriMo Character Name Discussion — […]

I understand what this is saying, however I would argue that you can’t just pick something and move on. I don’t stress of meaning, but a story just doesn’t feel right to me if my character’s name isn’t the right one. I would recommend just basing it one if you feel like the name is right for the character.

[…] J Timothy offers this perspective on character names. “Character names are like any other words in a story. Choose them carefully only if they’ll make a difference. Otherwise, don’t sweat. Just pick something and move on. It’s much more important to develop the whole of the character than to obsess over a few little words. That’s the big secret to naming characters.” You can read the rest of his article here. […]

Thanks for this! I just wrote about naming characters on my blog, but your ideas are great! I am an aspiring writer and any help on any part of the writing process is always appreciated.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

J. Timothy King

Thanks for stopping by, Sarah. I’ve added your blog to my massive list. Keep writing! -TimK

[…] The Story is a blog by J Timothy King about ‘writing stories and being a better writer’ and http://bethestory.com/2006/01/25/the-secret-to-naming-characters and http://bethestory.com/2006/02/24/how-to-name-characters are great pages. As is […]

writers wast time on the names any name will fit any character! like Alexis Stewert, a tall blonde hiared firey tempered girl, Jami Dupis a short quarky guy. the names fit.

[…] The Secret to Naming Characters […]

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