Written by JJ Barnes
Some people love naming their characters, and others find it really hard. The perfect name can really make a difference. I recently swapped the name of one of my characters because, as he developed and the story grew, he simply didn’t suit it. Carl became Zach and suddenly the story was easier to tell. It didn’t actually change his character, it didn’t change how I wrote him, but it fit. Finding the right name can make both the writing, and reading, of a story better.
I will explore things that you should consider when finding the right name for your characters, and why they matter.
Name Them By Their Era
If you’re writing a story set in a specific period of time, this will have an impact on the names you should use. Whilst technically you could call a woman in Victorian England “Kylie” if you want to, readers familiar with that era will be booted out. There’s no point setting your story in a specific time if you are going to make mistakes like that. Readers who enjoy that period of history will feel alienated by a modern name, it just doesn’t sit right.
Research the time you’re writing in. Find names that are commonly used. You don’t have to go for the most common name unless you’re particularly drawn to it. But you should pick names that feature on that list. This way, your audience can relax into your story and know that you know what you’re doing. If you’re familiar with the time period, they can trust you.
It doesn’t have to change your character or your story, but it will make a massive difference to your audience. Respect them and their knowledge and passion; name your characters appropriately.
Name Them For Their Place In The World
Where your character is from, or where their family is from, will impact your characters name. If your character was born and raised in your own country, but their family have moved from somewhere else, their name might reflect that. They may have a name common to their parents or grandparents homeland, or they may be given a name common to their resident country. In that case, their middle name or surname could be traditional to their parents home.
In my case, my father’s family came to England from Germany. My maiden name was changed to an Anglicized version of it many, many years ago, but you can still see the German origins. However, my partner’s father came to England from Ireland, so his surname is an Irish one. Your characters backstory is part of who they are, just as yours is part of who you are.
Research the nationality against the age of your character. I’m a big believer in representing people from all around the world in our stories, but it must be done with respect. If you name a character a stereotypical name it could come across as mocking rather than representation and a real character. It would be better not to write that character at all.
If you’re writing in a period of time from the past where travel was harder, names can change by town. A name popular in the North of England may have been rare in the South. Because the further back you go in history the less common movement was, names will be clustered by regional popularity. The perfect name takes all of this into account.
Fantasy Stories Suit Names With Deeper Meaning
When you’re writing a story that is urban or high fantasy, you can play with names. Words that aren’t traditionally names, or adaptation of words, can work brilliantly. Words with meaning.
For instance, Arya Stark in Game Of Thrones. Arya means Noble and Truthful. Arya toys with living fake lives, giving herself new faces, but ultimately comes back to truth and honesty. Nobility and honesty are common traits in the Stark family, and particularly represented in Arya. She is a noble and good character and that wins out, showing Arya is the perfect name for her. However, in The Vail you meet crazy aunt Lysa, and her name comes from Greek meaning “madness.”
In Harry Potter, Sirius Black is named for the Dog Star. When he transforms into an animal, he becomes a big, black dog. Similar Remus was a character in Roman mythology raised by wolves, and Lupin means “of wolf” in Latin. Remus Lupin is a werewolf.
If You Make Up A Name, Make It Easy To Say
It can be fun to make up an entirely new name. This is especially true if you’re naming magical creatures or aliens. It makes sense their names wouldn’t be the same as traditional human names, so you get to be creative. However, be careful. You might create a word that is a really interesting look, but if it’s entirely unpronounceable, you’re going to have a problem. Your audience needs to be able to read this story. If every time a name appears on the page they have to spend ages trying to work out exactly what sound it is, you’ll be booting them out. Every time they’re pushed out of your story by a word they can’t fathom you’ll find it harder to draw them back in.
Be creative, but with a mind for your audience. If you can look at the name you’ve created and see clearly a way it could be said, you’re fine. It could be pronounced in different ways by different people, but as long as you can get your mouth around it then it’s fine.
Names I Have Used
I love giving my characters names. When I’ve given them a name, I feel like I can connect to them.
My first book, Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit, features Lilly Prospero, Saffron Jones, and Jeffrey the rabbit. I’ve always loved the name Lily, but I added the extra name as it is revealed later that it’s a shortening of her birth name. Prospero was for the magical character in The Tempest, as Lilly has a powerful magic. I named Saffron with an unusual and beautiful first name because on the surface she is a striking character. However, teamed with Jones which is very common, because she feels like she isn’t as special as other people think she is. Jeffrey was named for my own pet rabbit, Jeffrey, which makes it the perfect name for Lilly’s beloved pet rabbit.
The lead character in Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven is, of course, Emerald Wren. I named her Emerald because she is rare, and Wren because she wants to give freedom to fly away from danger to others.
Ivy Rhodes in What Ivy Wants is named Ivy because it’s an incredibly strong plant that perseveres and grows, even when challenged. Even when Ivy feels like giving up, she keeps going. She keeps growing and flourishing, even when she thinks she can’t.
Trust Your Instincts
If you have researched and found what seems to be the perfect name, you might feel tied to it. But you’re not. You can rename a character if, for some reason, the name just doesn’t fit. My character Zach would have been fine as a Carl. Carl is a perfectly fine name. But it wasn’t right for my character. Trust yourself and keep researching until you find a name that, when you think about your character, feels right.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose