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How do you select the names of your characters?
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This post builds well off of last week’s topic. Names of characters are signs and symbols. If you think about it, names are just words—proper nouns. Thus, they yield power like words. Being able to name something or someone is the power to summarize specific meaning in a quick nugget sign.
From this, you might have surmised that naming characters is super important. You’re absolutely right. Give your character a shitty name and you’re starting down the road of failure (miscommunication, apathy, disengagement). Ever pick up a book and then see the character names and instantly know that the book is going to be terrible? Darla Squarla of the Impromptu Soliloquy. Or, Genamorosa savior of her world. It just makes you think, yeah right. Someone wants to be a space odyssey, star tripping, stripper. All credibility is out of the window. That book is going back on the shelf.
That’s definitely not the result we want from the names we use. That said, these strange stripper names are pretty okay to use on minor characters. Oftentimes, they’re meant to be ridiculous figures, so this kind of label helps that foundation set.
Additional Reading: The Power of Names: How What You’re Called Influences Who You Are
The fun part about names is how they can provide Easter eggs, or signs (sign posts), on the content’s road. That’s super powerful, and such a rich opportunity.
So what do I do to make sure that I have solid character names for my books? There are a few steps.
- Avoid using obviously contrived, bizarre (or borderline bizarre) names based off modern—unless your work is comedic in nature, such as Buckaroo Banzai.
- Follow the parameters of your genre. For instance, modern names aren’t going to work historically. Fantasy names do not belong in historical or modern periods. Ignore the importance and rules of naming at your work’s risk.
- Do your research. This is a place you can add additional meaning for your characterization. Parents don’t just name their children randomly. There are reasons the names are given.
- Don’t play letter bingo to build a name (see #1). Sometimes, on extremely rare occasions it works out. If it sounds corny to you, then it is.
- Think about how the name can be used beyond superficial identity. A name is branding. Does the name suit your character, telling their story, or does it seem awkward, and does that imply the proper trajectory for the plot? Irony isn’t enough. Go deeper.
- What are the cultural implications of the name. This goes back to researching the name.
- It’s okay to use a common name, just don’t name them according to a trend, such as Jack for the hero. Seriously. Let it go. It’s a sign that you’re writing fanfiction fantasies.
- If this is your hero, does it sound heroic? Is it a bad guy’s name and does it sound wicked? A friend? Grandma? Pet? Names should be suitable to identity.
- This matters for nicknames, too.
- Test run it. Whether you just survey friends for their thoughts, or put out a beta copy with a select few, see what feedback you can get. Those impressions will help you realize the name’s potential. Not everyone is a great resource. Be sure to reach out to people who will not just spit back platitudes to avoid disappointing you.
When naming a character, please, always remember that you’re creating a substory inside of it. You don’t just select something you Yahtzeed onto a page without deep consideration of how it can impact your writing’s credibility. Character names are usually the most memorable part of them. Like I said earlier, they’re tiny treasure chests full of meaning.
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