Not too long ago, a friend asked me how I come up with names for characters. She doesn’t write, but she’s got a bunch of kids, so I told her “the same way you do,” but that apparently wasn’t the right answer. My awful sense of humor aside, I thought the subject would make a good idea for a blog post.
Sometimes, the hardest part of creating a character is what seems to the rest of the world like the easiest, even funnest part. You can spend weeks creating a character sketch, fleshing out their background, where they’re from, what their family is like, their hopes and dreams and fears, what their favorite color is, what flavor of ice cream they like, who they love, who they hate, what kind of clothes they wear–until you know them better than your own family members. You can map out their relationships with other characters. You can understand their path through the story and their motivations. These things may take a while to become fully formed, but they come to you, either before you start the story or within the context of it.
It seems like hammering out the background details and personality traits would be the hardest part of making a character, and sometimes it is. But sometimes, the much ‘simpler’ part is even harder than all that detail-wrangling–because sometimes, you have no idea what to name the person you just spent so much time beautifully crafting.
I like it best when a character comes prepackaged with their name. This only happens to me about fifty percent of the time, though. The other fifty percent I usually end up having conversations like this in my head:
ME: What is your name, new child of mine?
UNNAMED CHARACTER: Look at me! I have dark curly hair and deep blue eyes. And a smile that lights up the room!
ME: Great, yeah. I got that. But what’s your–
UC: Did I tell you my mother was a waitress in a diner when I was growing up? And I’d stop by everyday after school and have a piece of cake? That’s why I love to visit shabby diners and have a piece of cake when I’m out on the road as a travelling saleswoman.
ME: Yeah, that’s in your character sketch, but–
UC: Did I tell you I’m in love with this guy in our accounting office? I think he has feelings for me too, gosh he’s so dreamy…
ME: YES. THAT’S THE SUBPLOT OF THE STORY. But what the hell is your–
UC: Did you know I have a cat? His name is Whiskers!
ME: GREAT. WHAT’S YOUR NAME?
UC: …I dunno. Linda?
Ideally, I’m always trying to find a name that fits my character’s personality, and barring that, at least something that doesn’t sound too stupid. A few times I’ve actually finished a story and then went back and changed a character’s name, because their name didn’t sit well with me when I was writing. I’ve also had to change a character’s name in post-production, because my editor felt it sounded too much like another character’s name.
Is there a trick to naming a character? Sadly, no. A lot of writers keep baby naming books on hand and of course, the internet has plenty of sites devoted to the same thing, including sites to look up names from specific cultures and races. But really, most of the time I wait to hear or see a name that strikes me and would fit my character. Sometimes it happens fast. Sometimes I’m ready to ship the story off to an editor and I’m still screaming into the ether “What the hell is your NAME?”
The next character who tries to mess with me like this, I’m going to name him something silly out of spite, like Sir Chocolate Twiddlepants.