Naming a character is similar to naming a child, except that while parents might hope that their children will have the traits signified by their names, short story writers and novelists can make sure they do. A meaningful name goes a long way toward insuring that your character stays in your readers’ minds long after they have finished reading.
Primary Personality Trait
Ask yourself, what aspect of your character is most prominent? Her courage? Her intelligence? Her righteous anger? Though the best characters are never flat or one-dimensional, focusing on one pronounced personality trait that you can then complicate with contradictory or surprising subtraits, is an excellent way to create a memorable character.
Baby Name Dictionary
Look through online lists of baby names, such as BabyNames.com, or scan through baby name books, such as “The New American Dictionary of Baby Names” by Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling, or “Baby Names Made Easy: The Complete Reverse-Dictionary of Baby Names” by Amanda E. Barden. Find names that have a meaning connected to the trait or traits you wish to emphasize in your character. “Frederick,” for example, means “peace ruler.” Pay attention to the sound of the name as well as the meaning; if a name sounds wrong for the character, it doesn’t matter how “right” the meaning is.
What To Avoid
Don’t give characters names that make no sense given their culture or background. For example, “Miroslav” means “peace and glory,” but makes no sense if your character isn’t from a Slavic background. Likewise, avoid giving names whose meanings are too obvious. If your character is a sailor, giving her the last name “Ocean” might seem cheap to your readers; likewise, if you’re writing a story that takes place during Christmas, you might want to avoid naming your character “Noel.”
Well-Known or Historical Names
Names have associations apart from their traditional meanings. “Conan” is an Irish name meaning “hound or wolf,” but many of us associate the name with a particular late-night talk show host. Consider lists of figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, saints (many of whom have modern-sounding names and are associated with particular traits) or American presidents. You can also use first names of celebrities, or similar names, to bring in associations from pop culture.
Finally, you might consider giving your character a name similar to someone you have known who exemplifies that character’s traits. Even if your readers do not have the same associations with that name, you will, and that will come through in your writing. Do not use the exact same name as the real-life person, due to the potential for legal complications.
- The New American Dictionary of Baby Names; Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling
- Baby Names Made Easy: The Complete Reverse-Dictionary of Baby Names; Amanda E. Barden
Based in Chicago, Adam Jefferys has been writing since 2007. He teaches college writing and literature, and has tutored students in ESL. He holds a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, and is currently completing a PhD in English Studies.