One of the compliments I often get as a writer is that I do a good job of naming characters. I never quite know how to respond to this comment because I don’t generally put a lot of thought into it. I’d like to say I have an elaborate system for naming characters, but I don’t. The more I think about it, though, I definitely do have some semblance of a thought process when it comes to selecting names. It’s not a complicated thought process, but it might be worth talking about it a bit if you have trouble with naming characters.
When it comes to real world names, I tend to look over names on baby naming websites. I try to pick names with meanings that reflect some central element of the character. Honestly, this approach has always struck me as a bit amateurish, so I don’t usually do anything to draw attention to it in the text. It’s one of those things that’s there if someone wants to bother looking it up, but the reader doesn’t need to know it to understand the character.
For example, here’s a rundown of name meanings for a few of the main characters from The Walls of Dalgorod:
Serafima: fiery angel
Kazimir: to destroy greatness
When appropriating real names for characters in a fictitious world, it’s also important to know the meaning in order to avoid connections to things that don’t actually exist in the fiction. For example, there are a TON of European names that are variations of names drawn from the Bible. While there’s nothing wrong with using these names, you should at least know their origins. As a blunt example, maybe you decide to name a character in some steampunk fantasy setting Kristof. Well, Kristof is a Slovenian/Slovakian form of Christopher, which means “bearing Christ.” If there’s no Christianity in this setting, this name is going to REALLY stand out as an anachronism for reader who actually knows what it means. The moral of the story here is to simply be careful. It’s honestly not all that hard to avoid problems like this. When you find a name you like, just run it through a quick check to be sure it doesn’t carry meanings or suggestions you don’t intend to convey.
Any time you’re making use of real names, it’s also a good idea to learn a little bit about cultural naming conventions. The Western formulation of “first name, last name” is a relatively recent historical development, especially as it relates to all levels of society. As recently as a few hundred years ago, the average European didn’t have a legal last name because they didn’t need one. They rarely interacted with anyone who didn’t know their family, so simply knowing a person’s father (hence the legacy of games like “Johnson” or “Robertson”) or their occupation (“Miller” or “Baker”) was enough for the local authorities to keep track of them. But not every society followed this formulation. There’s a great scene in the movie The 13th Warrior where an Arab character tries to recite his entire name to a Viking. Frustrated, the Viking just starts calling him “Ibn”, which means “son of”, because it was the thing he heard repeated most often. If you’re trying to cut and paste names together, you need to keep the conventions this in mind so you don’t end up giving someone a name that actually translates as gibberish to anyone with a passing familiarity with the naming conventions you’re using.
Inventing names out of whole cloth is a different matter. I actually enjoy this a lot more because you don’t have to concern yourself with the name’s meaning. Here the sound is the most important thing. Does the name create an impression or a feeling that seems right for the character? This can be a bit of a trial and error process of working through different sounds until you hit upon something that’s just right. Oftentimes a name comes easy, but sometimes you have to work at it for quite a while and go through different variations until something just sounds right.
For example, I wrote a novel with a character named Grisel. It’s supposed to be pronounced just like the word “gristle”, which brings to mind all sorts of gross connotations. The character works as a sort of sanitation worker in a dirty medieval city, so the association works well. Furthermore, he’s kind of a terrible person. The idea in this case is for the name to sound kind of unpleasant, which in turn affects how you think about the character himself.
There are some linguistic tricks you can fall back on too. There’s a character named Malendri in the new book I’m working on. Since her name starts with the Latin prefix “mal”, which means “bad” or “evil.” Not everyone will know this, of course, but they do know words like “malevolent”, “malady”, and “malfunction” all mean bad things. When you combine the name with a rather dark and mysterious character, you get even more of a sense something about isn’t quite right.
I’ve always enjoyed coming up with names, sometimes even creating characters just because I scribbled down a name that I liked at one point and wanted to see what a character with that name would be like. Obviously, there’s no right or wrong way to come up with names. It’s one of those things that we know is good when we see it, but can’t always explain why a name isn’t good beyond the vague sense that it doesn’t seem right. If you’re struggling to come up with names, though, some of these loose guidelines may prove useful.