The Importance of Names

When reading a story, have you ever been jarred out of it because of a name? I have and it’s annoying. If a name is hard to pronounce and I’m constantly trying to figure out how to say it, even though it’s in my head, I’m distracted from the story. And that’s not a good thing.

How about when a name doesn’t go with the character? Sometimes a writer can have fun with that and make it work. I remember one story where there was a bodyguard and his name was Pony. The author played with that and it was funny and added to the character actually making him seem stronger and more daunting.

I obsess about names in my writing. I feel that names have power and meaning. Sometimes characters arrive with a definite name and personality. When they don’t I feel that I have to get to know them. Once I know them I want to make sure I give them a name that matches who and what they are.

While I’m working on the first draft of a story and if a name hasn’t clicked with a character yet, I just give the character a place-holding temporary name, like xxx or zzz. Then when I find the perfect name, I use the find and replace feature in my word processor to fill the permanent name in wherever it’s needed.

I’ve found names by looking through baby name books. I’ve found a couple of sites online that give the meaning of names. There is one site that lets you play around with the meanings of names. Every now and then I will base a character on someone I know but I find that can be tricky and limiting so I don’t do that often.

It can be fun making up names. Since I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction I wonder how the authors come up with names.

There are great suggestions in the links below.

How do you name your characters? Do you name your characters after people you know? What are some of your favorite character names?


7 thoughts on “The Importance of Names

  1. For me, naming isn’t a process nor is it important. It’s not to say that names aren’t important–they are. I also get irritated when I can’t pronounce a name (I mean, there’s fantasy type names which I admit to not being a fan of to being with, but then there’s pretentious asshattery). I can forgive the names that don’t fit the character, because most of the time, I can start to see it eventually. Not ideal, but I think every writer goes through a crappy-character-name phase haha

    Anyway, for me, the names always come first. I’m not sure why. I’ll be minding my own business, folding laundry or flexing my muscles at Wii bowling and BAM! A wild name appeared! (first, middle, and last–all at once)

    Shortly after, it’s owner comes along. I can’t explain it. It’s not a process and I don’t do much thinking on the subject, it just happens.

    I’ve read quite a few blog posts on naming because it is always exciting to see the process of other writers, and a lot of people look for appropriate meanings of names. The only thing I don’t understand is why. I mean, technically, if you want to get down to the basics of it, the character’s PARENTS gave them that name, yeah? (or guardian or the like, of course) So if they were named at birth, how were they to know that name would fit them so perfectly?

    I doubt anyone is ever, EVER going to be that critical about a name, but it’s something I always thought about. As a reader, I would much rather read about a character whose name sounds like it’s fitting, rather than has a fitting meaning.

    Then again, I’m really not picky about names when it comes to reading hahaha

    So sorry for the annoyingly long post. I’ve got nothing to do at work with the hubby, so I accidentally blogged in response to your blog!

    • Don’t worry about the long post! I love hearing what other people think, so thank you for commenting. This whole thing started because I read a really good book but one character’s name kept stopping me because it just didn’t fit. Eventually I just ignored it but it took a while. I don’t want my character names to be annoying, so I give it too much thought! I love that you get your names out of the blue. That would be handy!

  2. Oooh, yeah I bet that was tough to get through. 😦

    And yes, it is definitely a blessing! I had a professor once tell me that his favourite thing about my work is the character names and how fitting and believable they are. A strange thing to be strong in, for sure, but a talent I cherish nonetheless.

    It is also quite handy in naming children! 😀 My son gets nothing but compliments on his name, to which Mr. Frenchie replies, “she’s a writer..”

  3. Rob says:

    My initial reaction was, “Names are everything!” Then I calmed myself down and thought, “Hmm, names aren’t really everything. It’s the character that matters most. If they’re a strong enough character, they’ll make a name for themselves.” A certain Mr. Darcy comes to mind.

    Is Darcy really a name that evokes an image of a strong, romantic lead? Not really. It sort of sounds like a whimsical, pretty girls name, but because of his character, he is now thought of by most as a leading man. You just say the name and people swoon. So, to a point, I believe it’s the chicken vs. egg theory. Which came first? Does it really matter? I’m pretty sure Darth Vader was destined to be cool no matter what.

    As for difficult names, I couldn’t agree more. I remember reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and going, “Okay, this person is now going to be known as Mary, and this one will be John,” because I just couldn’t keep the Swedish names straight.

    As for crafting names, well, I’ve done it all! I’ve used baby name books and internet name generators. I’ve taken friends names and twisted them around until I got something that worked and I’ve simply whipped up names out of thin air. I’ve had names come first and names come later on. I can’t really say one happens more than the other; but I do know that once I find a name, it usually sticks.

    • I think you are on to something there about the character being strong enough that no matter what the name, his or her personality will win the reader over. Building strong characters is the key. Thanks!

  4. davidgorman says:

    I’m slightly perplexed by this kind of approach, because to me it is counter to how names actually work. In the real world if you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name then you look it up, and if you don’t initially feel someone’s name fits them then that view is modified as you get to know them. In real life a person’s name is an arbitrary thing bestowed without foreknowledge of their character, so it seems odd to be off-put by arbitrary names in fiction.

    • In real life that’s how it has to be but why make a reader work harder to like a character? If a name helps define that character the writer is one step closer to hooking a reader. With all of the distractions available these days I opt for anything to attract and keep a reader.

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