What to name a character


Some of us really agonize over finding the perfect name for our characters. I know I do. I pour over online baby name sites, sorting by nationality, or most popular, or what was popular in 1930 vs. 1890. I’ll pick one, for awhile, then decide it’s too pedestrian. I don’t like made-up meaningless names, the kind you find in lots of bad romantasy (and yes, that’s a made-up word for that spin-off of the old-style romance that masquerades as a fantasy with elves and fairies and beautiful princesses who have to save their world from the legions of darkness that threaten to engulf them… you know the type). My characters often go through multiple name changes before I settle on one, but rarely do they ever finally seem “right”. Why is that?

One thing I have discovered is that I rarely like women’s names. Hmm. They always seem kind of “fluffy”, like the bearer is good for baking cookies and taking the kids to the park, but not much more. Or worse, they just sound childish, as if women don’t deserve strong-sounding, grown-up names. I’ll refrain from listing any that I particularly dislike, I don’t want to offend anyone who may carry one of these names and be perfectly happy with it. I suppose it’s just my own hangup about the issue. There are of course plenty of women’s names that are very commanding. I find many of the old Norse and Old English, Germanic names (e.g., Griselda) to be far less infantilizing than some of the modern popular names, but they’re viewed as ugly, old-fashioned, and conjure up images of beefy, broadsword-wielding Valkyries. Unless I’m willing to give a character one of these names, that will sound awkward and unwieldy to modern readers, we really have a very small list of names to choose from. Doing a web search while I write this, I’ve found probably hundreds of women’s name from historical documents going back to the 1100’s that are completely unknown, and have long since ceased to be used. I like to use something that’s not overly popular, but not too outlandish. I think it’s reasonable to assume I will never name a character Agglethrudis, but hey, you never know.

So anyway, what I’m struggling with right now is a male character’s name. His character was inspired by an actor in a particular role, and I’ve been using the actor’s real name, but really think I need to find an acceptable substitute. He has a name I have never heard before, and I really like it, it’s so working for this character, but I don’t think it’s such a good idea to use his real name, especially since it is so distinctive. So I have to find a distintive male name that I like. I’m open to suggestions.

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8 thoughts on “What to name a character

  1. Names. Always a dilemma. Sorry – can’t help you. Most of my characters pop into my head with names attached, whether I like them or not. Unless I’m writing Fantasy, of course, and then I agonize, and have been known to turn to my AngloSaxon dictionary to invent something that has meaning. Names of Stars (solar, not movie) are sometimes useful. Research the lists of Angel and Demon names. Otherwise, I’m afraid you’re on your own with this one.

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  2. yes, it is a dilemma…I have to admit to a tendency to give my characters symbolic names…something that reflects their personality or origin. I have been known to use friends’ names mixed up, but more as a tribute than a connection to the character…Male names are hard, hmmm…Micah? Landon? Owen? Marshall?…those are sort of different yet masculine…good luck!

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  3. Hmm, good suggestions, thanks. I am using a name I pulled from my Dictionary of Angels for one character (which shortens nicely for a more modern sounding nickname when the occasion warrants it). I may have to troll through that again.

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  4. I share your pain!
    I often find myself struggling to find suitable names for my characters. It’s a pain and I seem to never be satisfied with it. Especially female names!
    The same tends to happen with the Novel’s title. I’m rarely ever satisfied with it and often change it more times than not.
    I’m sorry but I can’ really help you choose a name. Why? Because I’m currently struggling to decide on the names of a few of my characters, and not being very productive about it.

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  5. Haha! Oh well, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who goes through this. Maybe I should just break down and buy another one of those baby name books. I lost my old one.

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  6. Hi there,

    I guess I’m lucky. Names come to me instinctively.

    Here’s an idea you might want to try. At night as you are drifting off to sleep, picture your male character in your mind. Don’t stress or even think about a name. Just see him walking about and stuff. Let your subconscious take over. Then, during the night or in the next days, when you least expect it, the name can pop up.

    🙂

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