Do Your Characters Tell You Their Names?

November 12, 2019

When writing fiction, sometimes my characters tell me their names and sometimes they don’t. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s names and nicknames. Perhaps a name says more about the parents than the person. Why did they choose a conservative name? Or a fun name? Or a made-up name? Some people’s names suit them while others don’t.

baby name bookWhen I name my characters, they already have physical traits, personalities, and quirks. I know quite a bit about them. When naming them, I consider how the name sounds, its meaning, what the name suggests, and its commonality in my time period. I also look at last names, but I’ll focus on first names here.

In my latest novel manuscript, for example, the 8-year-old boy told me his name was Bennie. Not Benjamin, not Benny with a “Y”, but Bennie, which is more often a girl’s name. He was the first one I named, even though he was a secondary character.

His mother, the main character of the book, wouldn’t tell me her name. I knew her well. She was in her mid-30s, a teacher, overweight, with long brown hair and a perpetual smile on her face. Dedicated to being a good mother. I researched name meanings and tried a bunch out but she didn’t like any of them. I looked through a baby names book I have for reference. I couldn’t find an appropriate name. Finally, I settled on the sound of the name. She became Clarissa, the closest name I could find to the word “care” or “caring”. It means bright, shining, gentle. She seems to like it well enough.

The 10-year-old daughter was easy. I wanted a happy name so she became Annabelle. I call her Anna when she’s more serious.

The antagonist posed a different problem. I searched online for a name meaning wicked or snake, and the name “Linda” came up. (Btw, I did another search yesterday, and Linda came up meaning “pretty”. I don’t know why it’s different now.) Anyway, I couldn’t name this mean woman Linda; some of my best friends are named Linda. I finally settled on Belinda.

snake

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Two more secondary characters – a married couple – needed common American names. He became Mike. She became Kathy. However, in my second draft, Kathy became Jenny. I didn’t notice until halfway through, when I changed her back to Kathy. Finally, I decided to stop thinking about it, and give her whatever name I kept writing. She’s Jenny. Mike means gift from God. Jenny means fair and yielding.

The hot, tough guy told me his name right away, and it wasn’t debatable. Dirk. It means gifted ruler. Perfect.

I needed a protector. His name became Stuart, which means guardian or steward. I chose “Stuart” rather than “Stewart” because I didn’t want a food reference in his name.

For last names, I look more closely at etymology. For example, I’m more likely to give a brunette who tans easily a last name of Italian heritage. Sometimes I use stereotypes to make a point. Sometimes I flip a stereotype.

In most cases, characters shouldn’t have similar names. We don’t want to confuse our readers.

You may be thinking none of this matters in a book, that you don’t even notice. It does matter. All the details work together to make the book cohesive. Plot, character development, and setting are all important, yet the name Margaret Smith suggests a completely different person than does the name Kelly Sullivan. A boy named Max will not be the same as a boy named Oliver.

namesPhoto by Philippe AWOUTERS on Unsplash

Think about some of your favorite characters from books or movies. Then give them a different name. The story would be different.

So, do your characters tell you their names? Or does this sound crazy? It sounds a little crazy while I’m writing it. If you don’t write fiction, it must sound really crazy. I assume other authors go through a similar process when naming characters but I’ve never asked.

Do you know the meaning of your name? Mine means “harvester”. I always enjoy fall, so maybe the name fits.

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