Playing the Name Game

Do you ever play the name game?

Sitting here with my current WIP, I’m shuffling around for character names. I’m terrible when it comes to choosing names, last names in particular. I’m not sure why. I didn’t really have any problems naming my kids, although to be honest, I hadn’t decided upon a name for my second daughter until right after she was born

Some characters seem to find their own name, something that fits them right from the start. You give them a name and it fits like a glove, and that’s a good thing. To be honest, I find it difficult to change a character’s name once I’m very far into a story, so I’m usually hoping I get it right from the very beginning.

There have been a few times when I’ve stubbornly wanted to use a particular name and yet it didn’t seem to fit the story at all. Kind of like trying to shove a square peg in a round hole. No matter how much you want it to fit, it just doesn’t.

I have a book of baby names that I like to check from time to time. Checking the meaning of the names is helpful too, as sometimes that will help determine what name I end up with. Often, something on the unusual side will appeal to me as I feel it makes the character more memorable. The names I choose are not always ones that I particularly like, or wish I’d named my own kids. I’ve always secretly felt that people with unusual names seem to be recognized in the world in a way that maybe those with very common names are not. That probably sounds silly, but sometimes secret thoughts have no real basis. That’s why we keep them secret.

There are some great sites with names as well that I have bookmarked and like to check out from time to time. A quick Google search will help you track some of these sites down. Gah, what did we do before Google?

One thing I have learned from another writer is to make sure not to give your characters names that begin with the same letter as it can be confusing to the reader. I think it’s a good tip, one I like to stick to.

For last names I usually check the telephone directory or the obituary column in the Halifax paper. While at a book signing for Bitter, Sweet, one lady bought my book because I’d used the last name Burbidge for the family in the story. She wondered where I’d found the name as she said it was her last name and not very common in these parts. Got that name from gleaning the telephone book, I told her.

After I make a list of possible names I begin to narrow the list down. Deciding what would sound appropriate for a particular character and which names I can immediately mark off the list. I like to get a feel for the name, get used to in my own mind, decide if it fits in with the setting and plot before I start using it. It kind of sounds a bit more complicated than it is. Still, if it’s a main character, I want to end up loving that name as much as I do the character I’m writing about.

How do you come up with character names? Do you have any special tips about naming your characters that you’d like to share?

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  1. Just don’t pick that yuppie slush like Kimberly, Kingsly or Montana. Depends on setting of your story, but non Anglo ethnic names from Spanish, Asian and Caribbean would be fitting for a few characters in a story based here in Miami. My son and I were discussing just the other day how odd it is that whatever name parents choose for their child turns out to be the perfect name that was meant to be. For example my son is Carlos and believe me, there is no other name that would fit and there is no other Carlos like my Carlos.

    • It seems to me that maybe children grow into their name. On the other hand, characters in our stories arrive fully expecting to be given the perfect name. I agree that setting would definitely have something to do with choosing a name. Wouldn’t want to use a modern name in a historical book. It just wouldn’t fit.

  2. I agree with Carl that you have to choose your names also based on your novel or story’s setting. In the past few months I’ve been asking my FB friends to help me. They’ve come up with more names and ideas than I ever could. It’s a great way to get help in plotting a novel~

    • Last year, I asked my FB book friends for girl’s name. While I got many suggestions, I ended up picking a name that wasn’t on their list. However, it helped reading the suggestions as it made me understand that the name I was leaning towards was the best of the bunch.

  3. Naming characters is one of those love hate jobs. When you get the right one, you’re sailing; when you have one that you don’t really think fits but you can’t find a better one, you’re anchors dragging.

    I’m like you, Laura, I get used to a name after using it in a novel. It’s very difficult to change it. I know names, particularly the two main characters, shouldn’t have the same letter starting their names, but . . . well, it happened accidentally, and now I can’t seem to give eiter up. One name I’ve lived with since I was about 15 — when began writing the first stories for these characters. How could I just change it?

    Like you, I also note any interesting name I come across in obituaries. Since I’m a genealogists, I’ve come across many.

    For me, as long as a name is ethically correct (there better be a good reason why a Scot’s man is named Jose) and I can pronounce it, I’m okay with it.

    My son grew into his name, too, and he’s lucky to be the only Cordel in our school system. He’s like Cher and Madonna, I tell him.

    On the weird side: My sister took my two oldest – Samantha and Cordel — to see Woody the Christmas tree at Mic Mac Mall several years ago and they met a boy and girl around the same age. Their names were: Cordel and Samantha! The final straw was that they had a little brother named Charlie. What are the chances of that happening? That’s strange than fiction.

    • I couldn’t imagine giving up a name you’ve had for a character since you were fifteen. It would be impossible. By this time it is etched in your mind.

      LOL! Strange things do happen. They say real life is stranger than fiction. Here’s a bit of proof. It does seem rather weird that another family has kids with the same names. I like that you named your son Cordel. He will be remembered. :) This means all eyes will be on him.

  4. I choose names that I have heard from almost everywhere. I find out their meanings and if I like the meaning, then I’ll use it. I am particularly fond of unusual names but always somehow ends up using regular, ordinary names.

    It’s the last names that I always find I’m having trouble with. Because I really hate to give them a certain race or a certain nationally to the name. I prefer describing the look of the characters instead. But sometimes you really have to choose a name with particular nationality. though I know nothing about that. I think certain names just give their nationality away and certain ones just don’t.

    If the first and last name sounds right together, than that’s that. It’s easy to change it later but I find I always go back to my first or second choice.

    • Meaning often does seal the name for me. I do think they are important.

      When it comes to last names I’m totally lame. I can never come up with anything that sounds good on my own. If I didn’t have some reference to use I’d be in big trouble. First and last names do have to have a ring to them, although I’ve often heard of parents giving their child a name that just didn’t go with the last name. It makes you wonder what they were thinking at the time. Some names, such as BEST can pretty much go with anything. My kids were lucky. :)

  5. Madison Woods

     /  November 14, 2011

    I have a very difficult time with last names. What I write lends itself to strange names, but I don’t like the ones I see in other fantasy or scifi – those kinds no one can pronounce without learning a new language, lol. I like names that can be sounded out. One of my latest characters has an acronym for a name and it’s clumsy but that’s part of the story, too. The other mc just decides to call him something easier to pronounce. But neither of those have last names yet. Something odd I discovered the other night while trying to give them last names is that I find it easy to name characters I intend to kill off. It’s the ones who stick around that are hard to nail down!

    • I tend to agree with you Madison in that I really hate it when I can’t pronounce the names of the characters I’m reading about.

      I giggled when you said you found it easier to name a character you intend to kill off, maybe it’s because you subconsciously think it doesn’t matter since they will be dead anyway. ;) I do find that an interesting point, however.

  6. Sometimes a character’s name comes to me easily and sometimes it’s a struggle. With my MIP, the female protag’s name came easily but none of the others did. A few are still unnamed. I’ll figure it out…eventually. :D

    • You’re right, Sonia, eventually they all have to end up having names, but it can sometimes be such a struggle. One character in a story I had been working on a few years back still baffles me. I like the name but it doesn’t seem to work for that particular story. I find having the name just right helps the words to flow effortlessly.–well, at least sometimes. :)

  7. I have a superstition about naming characters. I never give them names of people in my family.

    I do take care when picking names. Like you, I want them to fit the character. I check baby name books and sites too. Also, I sometimes check the US Census lists of popular names by year when I want to choose a trendy name to fit a certain era.

    Once, a character “told” me his name. Who was I to argue? ;-)

    • Your superstition is interesting, Linda. Now that you mention it, I’ve been leaning toward using Miss Charlotte’s name in a book sometime in the future.

      Checking the Census is a great idea!

      Hey, if a character told you his name, I’d say you must have got it right. ;)

  8. I enjoy reading the thought process behind naming characters.

  9. The names usually just come to me as I’m writing and I rarely change them. I named my main character Amanda, as my second granddaughter, Amanda, was 12 at the time I stared the book, the same age as the main character. It also just seemed to work. Now my oldest granddaughter is upset that I didn’t use her name. I will have to write another series with Aleasha as the main character someday to keep the peace. (of course I din’t think it would ever be a published book at the time!)

    • I like the idea that you used your granddaughter’s name for the Amanda series. It sounds like you need to get to work concocting a new series though. How many grandchildren do you have? eek! You may be VERY busy. However, if they all end up published…all I can say is, sweet!

  10. I have changed a character’s name part way through a project because sometimes, as the story progresses, he or she has changed and the original name just doesn’t fit anymore. Sometimes, too, minor characters just get called “X” until I find a name for them that I like. I always give names the ‘type test”, which means typing their name twenty times to see how awkward it is. If it’s clumsy to my fingers, I’m going to hate it after a couple of chapters.
    Elmore Leonard has a great quote about naming characters: “I once named a character Frank Matisse, but he acted older than his age; and for some reason he wouldn’t talk as much as I wanted him to. I changed his name to Jack Delany and couldn’t shut him up.”

    • I have also had to make changes, and I don’t always like it. Using X is a good idea. I like that! Haven’t tried the type test either, but it also sounds good.

      I love that quote, heather. So glad you shared it. :)

  11. I follow most of the routes you take. Sometimes when I’m introduced to the character in my head, they actually tell me their name. I know, that’s weird. LOL. But hey, I’m a writer. My mother’s other children are normal.

  12. I find that the names usually come right out of my fingers onto the screen. The result is not always perfect. I’ve learned that it’s bothersome to have a character whose name ends in “s” — it’s so clumsy when you have to use the possessive. I have two main characters with that problem. One, the octogenarian Gus, I wouldn’t have changed if I could, it’s so perfect for her.

    One of my leading character’s name is Hyacinth, shortened to Hy. Sigh. Yup. “Hy sighed.” I can’t have her do that. Even so, I’m sure I wouldn’t have considered these things had I given more thought to the names. My thinking would have been whether the name worked for the character, not whether it was a grammatical hurdle.

    • Somewhat similar to your Hy sighed, I named a character Ed. Ed said. Said Ed. I really had to juggle the words around a bit to prevent this from happening as I really hated the sound of it. No more Eds for me.

  13. I love my baby name book and I use it almost every time I need a name. I’ve also found watching the credits in movies to be a great place to find interesting names. The best ones are usually hiding at the end (miniature prop masters or the special effects people have great names!). :-)

    • I never thought of looking at the credits in movies! Bet there would be some interesting names. I’ll have to look more closely next time. Thanks for the great tip!

  14. MOst of the time my characters come with a name. If not I’m often inspired by the names of kids in kids’ classes…I love odd names “)

    I’m actually editing (re-writing!) the first novel I ever wrote at the moment, and at the time names weren’t somthing I gave much thought to, and I find myself seeing the need to re-name a bunch of characters because the names are too similar. At first the thought was that it would be impossible, they’ve been who they are for too long, but the idea has settled in and it seems doable now.

    • Many of us seem to like odd names for some reason. I do think it makes a character memorable.

      I’m sure having had some time away from the novel will make it easier to rename your characters. Glad your are able to make this work for you.

  15. As you know, Laura, I have little experience with this. BUT .. for NaNoWriMo last year I found that after waiting and listening (but not too long because of being on deadline. :) ) the MC’s name first came to me, followed by her best friend’s name. Neither had I heard before. The MC’s mother’s name? not so easy. And one character who turned out to be a protagonist .. the librarian, would you believe? .. went along as Ms. Librarian and to over 40,000 words before a name suited her. I have discovered that last names are tough to settle on, too.

    You always have great topics to discuss, Laura. I don’t get here as often as I’d like, but I enjoy what you have to share.

    • Waiting and listening is something many non-writers don’t understand, but yes, sometimes it’s a writer’s job to show up and go where we are lead. Glad you enjoy the topics over here, Lynn. I know how limited your time is these days so I always feel quite honoured when you are able to drop in. Come anytime. :)


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