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Names (for Characters, Children and Cats)

If I haven’t mentioned it already, I’m a name geek. In my other life (as a PhD student) I’m writing my dissertation on how parents choose names for their children, but even before I started that project, my shelves were full of baby naming books. As a twelve-year-old kid, I got strange looks from my fellow customers in B. Dalton’s because I was standing in the parenting section looking for good names. Like most name nerds, I’ve done some pondering on the names of my real future children; in fact, I semi-regularly present Husband with lists that are, at this point, completely hypothetical, just so that I can ask him “What do you think of this?” (in fact, the last time I did this may have been Saturday night. Just possibly.) But like many of you out there, I suspect, the majority of the non-dissertation-related name research I’ve done in my time has been to find names for fictional people.

Naming characters is a whole different game from naming real children. Unlike your kids, your characters will never turn around and tell you that they hate their name (unless you tell them to do it first); they’ll never get a nickname that you don’t approve (at least, not until their story goes out into the real world); and you don’t have to worry about them getting beaten up at school over their name (without your consent, that is). Thus, character names are a good place for a name geek to trot out favorites that’d be inappropriate for a real child.

Ways I’ve taken advantage of this in the past:

1) In my first novel-length project (the “never-leaving-the-bottom-drawer” freshman year apocalypse that I’ve mentioned on this blog before), one of the conceits of my dystopic society was that words that’d lost their dictionary relevance hung on as names. This gave me an excuse to name my characters things like Rhythm (no music in the world), Birch (no trees, either), and Secret (‘cause there are none of those under a totalitarian government, right?). Also Orion, which has since jumped onto the list of the top 1000 most popular American boys’ names. Who knew?

2) In my second novel-length project, a space opera co-authored with a friend, the intrepid scientist’s name is Kaimi (which we ended up pronouncing to rhyme with “try me,” but which I think correctly has 3 syllables and a glottal stop in it: Ka’imi, kah-EE-mee). Hawaiian. Means “the seeker.” Still one of the coolest meanings for a name I’ve ever encountered, but way too non-intuitive for a “real” American kid, and I don’t find either pronunciation particularly aesthetically pleasing.

3) My other main character in that same project changed his name when he ran away from home; when I had to come up with a birth name for him, I chose one that I thought would be difficult for an American kid to deal with, but which had a cool meaning of its own. In 2003, pre-Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stig (which I originally thought was pronounced to rhyme with pig, not with the long E) seemed like a strange enough name to make a kid think of changing it. And it means “wanderer.” Slightly different aura, but a similar enough theme for a pair of crewmates on a little starship off hunting for a replacement Earth.

I haven’t named nearly so many characters recently – since my current project’s also semi-collaborative, a lot of my principals are walking on-stage already named – but my experiences so far have led me to come up with a few rules that I try to follow these days when I do have somebody pop up in my brain who needs a name. Some of these are esoteric enough that I think they probably only apply to me (for instance, if I’m going to give someone in a fantasy setting a “real world” name that’d be recognizable to readers, I tend to tweak the spelling a bit, while I prefer the most traditional/popular spellings of names for characters in the real world), but some are broad enough that I think they might work for the general writerly population.

1) If you’re inventing a name, spell it in a way that’s intuitive to pronounce, at least to those who’ll be reading your book in its original language. Of course, there’s wiggle room here for making something look good on the page, too, and you can include a pronunciation guide at the front or back, but I’m one of those readers who doesn’t want to have to flip back and forth to remember how to pronounce things.

2) If you choose not to spell your names phonetically, at least make your pronunciation rules consistent. I’m looking at you, here, Robert Jordan: Elayne and Egwene are not characters whose names you’d guess are supposed to rhyme…

3) Try not to have more than one important character running around in the same chunk of the story whose names start with the same letter (or are even more similar than that). My space opera co-author and I discovered this too late, after we’d completed a draft of our  story and had to go through Find-and-Replacing everyone’s names because one character was consistently referred to by his last name (Corvus) and another by his first name (Cory). You see the problem.

4) If your story’s set in the real world, think about looking at what names were popular and unpopular at about the time your character was born. There’s LOADS of data available on this: the best and most straightforward website for American names, with data going all the way back to 1880, is the Social Security Administration list. As anyone who’s got an unusual name in the real world will tell you, people are apt to comment on it. A lot. If you don’t want your character’s name to be a major topic of conversation, give them something “ordinary” for the era that they’re from… or at least have someone take notice of it, for goodness’ sake (see: sitcoms who name their 20-something protagonists Jacob and Isabella because those are the trendy names now. As opposed to House, which I always approved of because one of its main female characters, Lisa Cuddy, was played by an actress also named Lisa. You know you’re doing something right there).

5) If you want the linguistic meaning of your character’s name to relate to their fate somehow, great – that can be a lot of fun. But unless you’re writing for allegory (or comedy), don’t name your hero Hero or your virgin prostitute Philia or your anxious slave Hysterium. Their parents didn’t know what they were going to be when they grew up, after all.

Although I’ve not named any “real” kids yet, I’ve reached the point where I’m starting to get email requests from friends looking for advice on what to name their forthcoming children. I think the best advice I’ve heard on that front works for characters, too: pick something you think you’ll like, practice saying and writing it a LOT (because when you have to yell it across the playground – or your critique group wants to engage you in a twenty-minute conversation about the character’s motivations – you don’t want to cringe) and then, in the end, don’t worry about it too much. Because whatever name you pick, quickly enough, it’ll become that little creature’s name.

My only firsthand experience with this is phenomenon comes from the day Husband and I got our cat last fall. Although the shelter that we got him from had named him “Bernie,” we knew that wasn’t who he was destined to be. In fact, we took one look at him – the tiny kitten hiding under his blanket peering out at the world – and broke the first rule of pet naming: don’t use a human name for your animals, because you don’t want to someday face the problem of not wanting to name your child after the cat (fortunately for us, I think it’s unlikely that we would have ever wanted to name a future son after Linus Van Pelt (of course, my computer-geek husband points out that Linus Torvalds might be another matter…)). When we were first introducing him to friends, it felt strange: “What’s your kitten’s name?” “Uh… Linus? His name is Linus?” But now, almost a year later, he couldn’t be anything else.

I think the same goes for characters, and children, too. Think long and hard about what you’re going to name your dearest ones before you put the name on them, because once they’ve worn it a while, it can be devilishly hard to get it off of them again.

What about all you other writer types out there (or namers of children and pets, for that matter)? What experiences have you had with choosing names?

Additional links for name nerds:

  • Nameberry:  Fashion- and trend-conscious site (one of its co-creators used to work at Vogue) that has a new blog post every weekday about something name-related, and also all kinds of lists that could be useful for authors looking for, say, an autumn name for their character.
  • Nymbler: Great for fictionalized (or real) sibsets — lets you put in up to 6 names and gives you others that share their socio-demographic qualities.
  • Appelation Mountain: Daily (weekday) histories of audience-requested names. Always a fun read 🙂
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  1. Matt

     /  September 25, 2012

    I really struggle with names, because I just want them to be SO great. So I tend to skew the other direction, which is trying not to over-think it. Perhaps because of that, I’ve ended up poking fun at myself by using ridiculous names – often without even realizing it right away. For instance, I once named an antagonist “Jothy,” which may be funny for you now that you’ve watched Farscape, and that was definitely out of pure frustration with trying to come up with a better name. I also once named a completely superficial and bland character “Guy,” which may have been subconscious commentary on my own frustrations with not dredging more out of that character.

    With protagonists I tend to use “ordinary” names, and I think that’s likely because I don’t generally start out with a fully-formed idea of their character, and by the time I do, their name seems kind of locked-in.

    With my novel project, being a fantasy book, I didn’t want everything to sound like middle english OR like Dragonlance, so I rooted all the names in something specific (in this case, Russian names), which seemed to take a lot of the work off my plate in creating a cultural context for names to have generated – but there’s no getting around the real-world history of many real-world names, which meant I had to be semi-researchy to not be constantly using names that had some biblical, greek/roman, or christian root.

    Pet names are a whole other story. We named our dog “The Regent,” but that’s absurd and annoying as hell to yell at the dog park. Luckily Linda stepped in and re-named him “Taco,” which I think we’re all a lot happier about – including Taco, because now he doesn’t have to be embarrassed of his stately name while he eats other dog’s poo.

    My point about names is that Linda has good ideas about everything.


    • I definitely like the idea of having a fantasy world system have vaguely linguistically related names (looking at GRRM on this one — Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion do not sound like they ought to be siblings…) Mine has some Celtic overtones, but the language is kind of pidgin-y so I can cheat on that count too 🙂


  2. Brian the Tall

     /  September 26, 2012

    Second linguistic relation in fantasy names! I wanted to add a #6: if you are writing in a setting that doesn’t exist, remember that names for people and places have cultural context. It can be tempting to give everything a “fantastic” name, out of thrown together syllables, but if you put a bit of time into figuring out a ‘style’ for how this or that place goes about naming things, you can get a LOT of mileage on some pretty subtle world building that people will pick up on.

    I also find it really hard not to over think names, to the point where I might get stymied for 5-10 minutes on what to name a throwaway characters horse. In my fantasy setting, I try to pick a real world language to base the sound on, and then diverge from there, as well as mapping nearby areas to have relationships similar to the real world. I think I get my most mileage out of going back in time for place names, picking a meaningful word then transforming it. I’m quite happy with Valungend, Skyrsend, and Duna.

    Character names I’m often less satisfied with, but I agree the characters grow into them. I was never particularly satisfied with Alexander, which was completely off the cuff, but I’m happy with Welyn and Edwyn. In my Sci Fi setting I’m WAY less consistent about names, deliberately; Humans are a well scattered people, with worlds settled a dozen times over 20 thousand years, so their names are often more eclectic. I also use word names a lot more, because a) it’s not like they’re speaking English anyways, and b) I can get away with it, a la your dystopia =P

    Also, since I’ll NEVER get to mention it anywhere else, I’m happy with “Shiacatel”, which in my head means ‘angel of fire’, bastardized from the Nahuatl “Xiuhcoutl” meaning weapon of destruction and related to the fire diety.


    • I’m having a much easier time inventing fantasy names now that I’m starting to develop some ground rules for the language I’m naming people in — I’ve decided it has vowel harmony (more or less) meaning that only certain vowels can go with certain consonants, which I think adds to the subtle worldbuilding you were talking about. The problem I’m running into these days is the one I alluded in to my first point, that it’s sometimes hard to strike a balance between using consistent phonetics and not having names look super unattractive/non-intuitive to English-speaking readers. For instance, my language has a sound like the u in “put” and a sound like the u in “pun” — I’m right now using the double U for the first one and the single U for the second one, and a double O for the “long u” sound… but starting someone’s name off with a double letter of any kind feels awkward to me, so I hedge on that count.

      We’ll see… haven’t hit many pre-named characters yet, so once I do I’ll have to decide whether I want to tweak the spellings to make them more phonetic or not. There’s a major character lurking just off-stage right now whose name is going to be a problem, I suspect, because it’s got 2 vowels in the middle that are meant to be spoken separately, not dipthonged (like the difference between Ka’imi and Kaimi I talk about above), but I haven’t found a handy way of showing that that doesn’t look ugly…



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