A big mistake writers make is thinking that they name their characters. They do not. A character’s parents make that choice. Before naming your character, you must consider the person’s ethnicity, age, upbringing, geographical location, and parents’ personalities.
1. Make the name AGE APPROPRIATE. Decide the age of your character. Deduct that age from the year your story takes place. For example, if your story takes place in 1960 and your character is 25, she was then born in 1935. If your character lives in the United States, use the U.S. Social Security site to see the most popular names for that year.
2. Make the name EASY TO PRONOUNCE. Readers pronounce names in their head as they are reading. If they stumble on a word or name, it will take them out of your story. If you are writing a screenplay, you don’t want a name that is difficult to pronounce for your actors’ sake.
3. Consider your character’s ETHNICITY and LOCATION of BIRTH. A family’s ethnicity and history is tantamount in baby naming. Even if it’s a minor character in your story, take the time to figure out his backstory, his ethnicity, and a name that fits. Also consider location of birth and generation. A fifth-generation Italian child may not be named Lorenzo if he’s born in Ohio in 1980. He may just be named Jason.
4. Give your sibling characters similar NAMING STYLES. Very rarely will parents change their naming styles when naming children. If one child has a traditional name, it would be rare that another would have a created or wild name. If you want a sibling to have a different type of name, make it a nickname (with a secret traditional name).
5. Don’t use a name SIMILAR TO ANOTHER CHARACTER in your story. It will be confusing. Kirk and Kent, for example. Even when naming twins, be careful that they are unique enough to differentiate to the viewer/reader.
6. CONSIDER YOUR GENRE. Romance novel characters have historically been given more flowery, romantic names. Sci-fi characters most often have created names (see tip #8). Consider your genre before naming your characters. Hopefully you have read many works within your genre (all good writers do). Follow suit.
7. Be careful with NAME ASSOCIATION. There are certain names in our culture that are easily identified with famous or infamous personalities. Adolf, Oprah, Kanye, Madonna, to name a few. Unless it is part of your character’s story or background, avoid using easily-associative names. This also applies to fictional names, as well, like Atticus, Scarlett, or Katniss.
8. SCI-FI names don’t have to sound ALIEN. It’s difficult to predict what names will be popular in the year 3000, however you don’t have to make your science fiction characters sound like they are from Mars (unless they are). As stated in Tip #2, the name should still be easy to pronounce in the reader’s head. The name Zyxnrid, for example, would be difficult to read or listen to every time the character is referenced—and may detract from your overall story. If you do choose to create your sci-fi name, you may want to:
- Combine two common names to make a less common, but pronounceable name. Example: Donica (Donna and Veronica).
- Use ancient mythological names, or combine two of them. Example: Ceres or Evadne.
- Make it easy to pronounce and spell. Example: Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings.
9. Avoid using character names in dialogue, especially between characters who have a close relationship. This is often a lazy trick of screenwriters to identify their characters, especially for new viewers. However good writers can establish relationship in less obvious ways. In real life, couples will use nicknames, terms of endearment (honey, dear, boo). What nickname have your characters created for each other? Parents rarely call their children by their full names–unless they are admonishing them for bad behavior or testifying in court. If you have loving parent characters that are addressing their kids, use a nick name or term of endearment (sweetie, baby, D.J.). An exception to this would be if you want to show the parent character being cold and distant to their child.
That being said, outdated terms like “Sis” rarely crop up in natural, normal conversation. However they are all over television (lazy writers, again). Instead of having your character constantly calling her “Sis,” have him ask if she’s “Heard from Mom today?” or ask another character “Don’t I have the best sister ever?”
10. Have fun with naming your characters and take time to see what “fits.” What was your character’s childhood nickname? Is that an embarrassment when his parents address him in front of his friends? Did your character change his name at any point in his/her life? If so, why? Does your female character want to change her surname when she gets married? Why or why not? Names are such an important part of one’s identity, don’t take it lightly with your story!