Names are an important part of human culture. Titular names can give power, like “king” or “empress,” or can take it away, like “slave” or “prisoner.” Names of endearment exhibit affection, while those of disgust mean to put the victim down.
Personal names work similarly. Some peoples are named after ancestors, parents, or religious figures. Others are named after objects in their physical environments. Some names come via dreams or visions.
The names you give your characters matter.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a name for the sake of its sound. But why not give your story that extra layer of complexity? Readers love it when they can dig deep into their favorite characters and find revealing truths in the details. For example, would Aragorn’s love interest in Lord of the Rings have had just as powerful an impact on the series had her name been Jessica? No, probably not, because Arwen has Welsh origins meaning “noble maiden”–a fitting name for an elf known for her beauty, royalty, and magic.
There are a few things you should consider when naming a character.
- Ethnicity/Nationality – If you are basing your character’s culture off a real-life group of people, consider using that group’s language when naming your darlings. It wouldn’t make much sense to use a European name like Eleanor if your character is meant to be Middle Eastern.
- Appearance – Does your character have a striking physical feature? Play off that. If your hero has fiery red hair, consider names like Rowan or Roisin.
- Setting – If your story takes place in the tropics, it would be contradictory to name your MC Olwen or Aspen (all snowy climate-inspired names). Pick a name that reflects the world your characters live in.
- Personality – Is your heroine bull-headed and independent? Pick a name of goddesses, like Athena or Pele, or of heroes, like Joan or Cleopatra. Or dig up names that mean strength. Just about every language I’ve researched so far has names that exude these qualities.
- Their Arc or Goal – Say your MC goes from being timid to brazen and powerful. Choose a name that projects that arc and change in their soul, like Absko or Rodrigo.
An extended example, from my short story, “The Shetland Saint”
The MC in this short story is the Shetland Wulver, who I chose to portray as a man with hypertrichosis in the early 1600s. His abnormal appearance causes anyone who sees him to be afraid and label him as part-wolf. He lives a hidden, secluded life, but often anonymously helps those he notices are lost and starving.
I wanted to give this man a name. I could have stuck with “Wulver,” but that was dehumanizing. So I began by searching for names that mean “wolf.” Not that his parents named him this, but that perhaps the few farmers who discreetly took him in until he was a man gave him that title.
I came up with Fillan. Not only does this name mean wolf, it is Scottish and Gaelic, so fairly close to being setting-specific. I also discovered Fillan was the name of a medieval missionary in Scotland. Then the brainstorming fireworks blew up… my MC, who looked like a wolf-man and aided the needy, was a saint-like figure… so came the title “The Shetland Saint.”
Discretion is Heavily Advised.
- Look up a name on more than one source to confirm its true meaning.
- See famous and historical people with that name. Don’t name your character after a real life person who presents triggering and problematic associations.
- If the language is foreign, learn how to pronounce it. I had to do that to understand Fillan was pronounced “fill-in.”
- Try to be culturally sensitive. Don’t throw around names that might be sacred to a group of people.
- Know how the culture you’re emulating names people. For example, in my current novel WIP, my MC is half-Polynesian inspired, particularly Hawaiian. The Hawaiian naming process is heavily revered, with names arriving by dreams, visions, or mystical voices.
- Don’t let your names feed into negative stereotypes.