Do you ever have trouble coming up with a name for a character or place? Even though I’ve kept a list of potential character names for years, it’s honestly one of the trickiest parts of novel-prep for me. Names can either bring your story to life, or stick out and interrupt the flow of the story for the reader. It’s especially important in fantasy or science fiction — since you’re creating an entire world from the ground-up, one out-of-place name can throw everything off. That’s a lot of pressure! While I’m no expert, these are the tricks I’ve found helpful so far.
Trick #1: Don’t feel obligated to copy the heavy hitters. J.R.R. Tolkien created his own languages, so I think a lot of fantasy writers feel like creating a language is now a requirement. However, I don’t have the linguistics know-how to pull that off, and honestly, making up a language does not sound fun to me. So I’m skipping that “requirement.”
This applies to other genres too. Maybe you’re tired of safe names like Emily or Jane. (No offense to any Emilys or Janes out there! I love both those names, but there are a lot of you.) Or maybe you feel like everyone is trying too hard to make their characters special by giving them weird names. Don’t be afraid to ignore the “rules” and choose names that fit your story.
Trick #2: Don’t be afraid to borrow a name from another story — as long as it’s not easily recognizable. If your protagonist is named Hermione, Katniss, or Frodo, your reader is going to know something’s up. But secondary characters are a great option for some creative “theft.” Shakespeare’s plays and the Harry Potter series have tons of secondary characters, so they’re a great place to look for names that will work for your story.
I think it also helps if you borrow from several sources, so readers don’t notice ten Shakespeare names popping up throughout your story. (This obviously doesn’t apply if you’re doing a retelling of Hamlet or Macbeth or something like that.)
Trick #3: Borrow a name or word and change it up a little. This is probably my favorite trick. Whether you’re afraid that a name sounds too familiar as-is, or you want to make it a little more interesting, changing one or two letters can make all the difference. This is also great for using words as names. A few months ago I bought a bottle of rosé called Miraval. I really liked the name, so I changed a vowel and voila! I had a name for one of my protagonists. True story.
Note: Like Trick #2, I think you should avoid names that are easily recognizable. A name like Eragon (cough cough) is so similar to Aragorn that readers might assume you borrowed it.
Trick #4: Sound is more important than meaning. In the past, I chose names based on the meaning, but they never sounded good together. While I love character names with symbolic meanings (J.K. Rowling is especially good at this), I think sound is ultimately more important.
Trick #5: Avoid really complicated names. If you’re a fantasy writer you’ve probably heard this advice before, but it’s worth repeating. If there are too many silent letters or extra syllables in a name, your readers will have to do a lot of heavy lifting every time they read it. And if your protagonist’s name is 18 letters long, odds are your reader will be pretty cranky after stumbling over it 10,000 times.
If you’re absolutely in love with a complicated name, try using a nickname. The full name will actually have more impact if you only pull it out for important moments (AKA birthdays, ceremonies, or when they’re in trouble).
Trick #6: If you can’t decide on a name for a character or place, it’s better to use a temporary name than to get stuck searching for a perfect one. (I’m preaching to the choir here, because I’m totally guilty of this.) After all, C.S. Lewis changed the Pevensie siblings’ names after the first draft, so I think it’s ok to use a placeholder name until you find one that’s just right.
Do you have any tricks for picking character names? Do you think it’s beyond weird that I named a character after a wine bottle? I’d love to hear what you think!