One thing that I frequently hear from newer writers is how difficult it is to name characters. It happens so often, that I think it may just be a manifestation of writer’s block — they know their character so well, and yet they don’t have that label, that keystone, that would allow them to dive in and start writing.
You can’t write without knowing your character’s name, right?
While I am sympathetic to their plight, I don’t understand this, because names come so easily to me. Often times, it will be one of the first aspects of the character that falls into place. As soon as I know their position in the story and a couple of details about their personality, a name flashes in my brain. And usually, it’s a good one.
I’ve been thinking a lot about character names lately. There’s a certain individual that’s been popping up in the news lately, and whenever I see his name, there’s a little itch of discomfort somewhere deep in the gray matter of my brain.
His name is Ronny Jackson. He’s a medical doctor, a rear admiral (lower half) in the Navy, and currently serves as Physician to the President of the United States.
Don’t go clicking away yet. I promise, this isn’t a political piece. Nor am I going to besmirch a man in uniform. Whatever my political beliefs are, and how they might align with his, I wouldn’t impugn a man who’s risked his life to defend this country.
This isn’t about that. This is about his name.
Ronny is a perfectly good name. Your name might be Ronny. Or, you might be like me, and have a long-estranged Uncle Ronny. But if I was naming a gruff naval officer or a brilliant tenured doctor, I wouldn’t name him Ronny.
Ronald Jackson? Oh, sure, no problem. I could see him holding his own on the deck of an aircraft carrier or commanding a whip-sharp team in an operating room.
But Ronny? Ronny Jackson is the kind of name I’d give to a 22 year-old pot dealer in Bethesda, the one that all of the CIA hackers go to when they need some green. Ronny Jackson is squirrelly, shifty, the kind of kid that you’d always keep one eye on, and definitely don’t trust with your life.
The name doesn’t fit the character.
Think about the names of some of the most famous fictional characters of late. Don’t think too much about the literal meanings or etymologies of their names, rather, say the names out loud. Think about the sound of their names on your tongue, the way the letters snap and flow on your lips:
- Albus Dumbledore
- Minerva McGonagall
- Bilbo Baggins
- Katniss Everdeen
- Coriolanus Snow
- Atticus Finch
- Ellis Grey
- Owen Hunt
(I could keep going on.)
Isn’t there something about the music of the names themselves, the way that they sound, that suggests something about the character’s personality, their role, their nature?
There’s a reason that the powerful and mysterious headmaster of Hogwarts isn’t named Sparky Jones, and the taciturn but loyal Transfiguration mistress isn’t named LuAnn Belchley. Those names don’t evoke the kind of characters that Jo Rowling was trying to create.
This isn’t just some ex post facto thing, where I’m deriving traits from extant characters. Nor is this to suggest that free will doesn’t exist, and people who don’t have dignified, almighty names can go on to do dignified, almighty things. This is one of those places where fiction splits away from the real world, just a little bit.
The name should suggest the character.
I started writing my first novel, Somehow You’re Sitting Here, in 2010 or so. And over the six years that I worked on it, the characters grew and changed a lot, as you might imagine — including my main character, Isabelle.
The name choice was inspired by one of my favorite fictional characters, Isabelle Lightwood, from Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books. It wasn’t that I thought my Isabelle was a kick-ass, tough-as-nails demon hunter, but I wanted her to aspire to, to grow into, some of that toughness.
Unfortunately, the name didn’t fit who she grew into.
I wasn’t able to figure this out on my own — this is one of the many helpful notes that came courtesy of a mentorship with Heather W. Petty, author of Lock and Mori. It was a devastating note, but she was absolutely right.
This girl, who had started out as an orphan living with her best friend’s family, had turned into the daughter of a conservative Southern Baptist pastor. Isabelle was way too exotic of a name; there was no way that this girl didn’t have a Biblical name.
Well, I figured, that leaves me with three choices: Esther, Ruth, and Job’s Wife.
I was only being slightly facetious. But you’re not here for Biblical commentary, either.
I did a little bit of digging around, and decided on Rachel. It was the only name that didn’t feel too stuffy or formal. It was a name that I could see belonging to a teenage girl, discovering who she is and who she loves. Rachel Laine Cole. The name clicked, and that’s who she’s been ever since.
Think about this, when you’re next trying to name characters, and you feel like you’ve hit a wall. Don’t worry about the etymology, the literal meaning of the name. Think about the music. Close your eyes, and try to picture the person that this name belongs to.
If you’re so inclined, here’s a bit of an exercise for you: I’ve generated a list of names, using the tool in Scrivener. So far as I know, these names have no outside context or connotation. Try to write a sentence or two about each character.
- Kellie Abbott
- Fitzsimmons Binkley
- Kadyn Weaver
- Dravin Graves
- Maslynn Davenport
- Lucasta Roberts
- Virgil Kennedy
Have you done the exercise? Check out my answers.
Zach J. Payne writes YA fiction, poetry, and plays. He’s an assistant at Ninja Writers, helping writers find their voices and their tribe. In the past, he read queries as an intern for Pam Victorio, a literary agent at D4EO. He lives in Reno.