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How to Name Your Characters
The calendar says November, but aspiring novelists know the month by another name: National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Since 1999, NaNoWriMo has encouraged writers of all backgrounds and experience levels to complete 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and November 30. (That's 1,667 words per day.) A not-insignificant number of those words will be among the most important ones a fiction writer can conjure: the characters' names.
"Compared to naming a character, naming a baby is a breeze," write Anne Bernays and Justin Kaplan in The Language of Names. A baby, no matter what it's named, "is a zero, an unknown." But fictional characters' names "convey what their creators may already know and feel about them and how they want their readers to respond." Early English fiction such as The Pilgrim's Progress featured characters with allegorical names: Christian, Faithful, Great-heart; two 18th-century plays gave us characters whose names are still used symbolically: Lady Bountiful and Mrs. Malaprop. Names don't have to be literal to be memorable: Think of Hermione Granger, Scout Finch, Holden Caulfield, and Jay Gatsby.
Want to create your own memorable character names? Whether you're a NaNoWriMo participant or a writer of other fictional genres such as screenplays, here are some strategies that work ... and some pitfalls to sidestep.
Avoid anachronisms. Dana Hopkins, a fiction editor in Toronto, says she keeps an eye on characters' birth years: "If they're all in their early twenties and named Sally and Jimmy and Peggy, I make some suggestions about where to do name research." One reliable source for US naming trends, based on Social Security Administration statistics, is the interactive Baby Name Voyager, which will tell you that Jennifer was the number-one name given to baby girls in the 1970s and that the boy's name Scott has been in steep decline since the 1960s. You'll find statistics on baby names in England and Wales here, and for other countries and regions here.
Make meaning matter. For her latest novel, The Grammarians, Cathleen Schine named her twin protagonists Laurel and Daphne: "two names for the same minor Greek goddess." Schine told me she generally avoids symbolic names, but in this case wanted to emphasize the significance of the names to the twins' parents. Daniel Handler, the author (as Lemony Snicket) of the Series of Unfortunate Events books for children, gave his orphaned protagonists the surname Baudelaire: The French poet's "doomed and decadent worldview" was appropriate for the comically macabre novels. In his recently published adult novel Bottle Grove, a newly rich married couple have the surname Nickels.
Don't confuse us. I enjoyed the Downton Abbey series and film, but was perplexed by two characters named Thomas and three characters — including the two Thomases — whose surnames begin with B. Name overlap may be inevitable in a historical novel, but it's inadvisable in an imaginative work. Carol Saller, the author of the middle-grade novel Eddie's War, doesn't allow more than one main character's name to start with the same letter: "I keep two alphabetic lists of names — by first name and by surname — and use them to avoid similarities," she told me.
Appearance and sound. Rob Hart, author of the dystopian novel The Warehouse, named his protagonists Zinnia and Paxton; the names are plausible yet slightly science-fiction-y, thanks to that Z and X. Hart told me character names “need to sound right in the rest of the piece — it’s like a musical note.” To find character names, he searches online for “unique baby names” and then scrolls through the sites that appear. “I go through dozens,” he said.
Cultural considerations. Will your novel have Russian characters? Then you'll need to understand the Russian naming system: given name, patronymic, family name, and one or more diminutives. (The American author Martin Cruz Smith's novels set in the Soviet Union and Russia, beginning with Gorky Park, have good examples.) Jewish characters are unlikely to be named Christopher or Christine unless you've created a credible backstory for those anomalies. Many people in Spanish-speaking countries use the surnames of both parents. Need to verify the accuracy of a name from a culture not your own? Consult a name translator.
Fantastic names. To create names like Frodo Baggins and Gandalf for his Lord of the Rings saga, J.R.R. Tolkien consulted Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse names and word roots: In Old English, "fröd" means "wise"; "Gandálfr" is found in an Old Norse text and can be translated as "staff-elf." Christian Wilkie, a fantasy/science-fiction writer who publishes under the pseudonym Aborigen, told me he attributes a real nationality to a population of humans or creatures and researches common names from that group. To set a four-part series in Bulgaria — "about which I knew nothing" — he 'studied a town in Google Street View and looked up common names for the characters based on how they felt to me.' You can read the first story in the series here.
Visit dead people. Andrew Sean Greer found the names Pearlie and Holland, the protagonists of Story of a Marriage, in Kentucky cemeteries. Elizabeth McCracken found most of the names she used in her 2019 novel Bowlaway in her grandfather's genealogy. "I never worked this way before," she told Publishers Weekly, "where the names" — Jeptha Arrison, Golda Bastan, LuEtta Mood — "were the jumping-off point for the characters." Her agent says "they're the most creative names since Dickens."
Friends and family. The aptly named title character of Andrew Sean Greer's Less: A Novel honors some friends of the author whose surname is indeed Less. "They were tickled," Greer reports. Mark Gunnion — who is a professional name developer as well as a screenwriter — has named characters in two of his screenplays "Janet Brown," his sister's name. He based another character on himself and gave him his own Facebook alias, Hal Quincy, "but everybody calls him HQ, and his branding agency is called Brand HQ."
Play with words. Vladimir Nabokov named a character "Vivian Darkbloom" — an anagram of his own name — in two books, Lolita and Ada. (If you want to create your own anagrammed names, here's a handy tool.) Mark Gunnion has named a sarcastic character Barb and a character who wears an eyepatch Iris.Sometimes name-play is more subtle, as in Taffy Brodesser-Akner's Fleishman Is in Trouble. "Fleishman is a doctor and a pursuer of sex," Brodesser-Akner told me, so the literal meaning of his surname — flesh-man — is apt. It's also recognizably Jewish, which is significant to the story. "I think names inform personality," Brodesser-Akner said. "I think a lot about how names make people, or how explaining your name creates something in a person."
Still searching for names? Check out Behind the Name, a huge repository of first names and surnames from many cultures, from Albanian and Armenian to Thai, Vietnamese, and Yoruba.