Is Your Character Stuck with a Fad Name?

I read an absolutely fascinating article on baby names, and how they change over time and how some names sort of move in packs and what is currently going on with the state of baby-naming (hello, yoonik names!). It’s really delicious.
The only things I’ve named recently are my cats (after literary characters) and my car (Sassafras, because she’s so Sassy — also, the word sounds really cool). With no kids to inflict odd names upon, I’m left with the people I make up for stories.
A quick review of recent name choices for my characters offers a smattering of my friends’ names, a cluster of intentionally old Biblical names, one “scifi” variation on a historical name, a few names tied to jobs and fibers for a cult of characters, and a bunch of fairly generic common American names.
I feel like I need to now take those names (or at least those of significant characters) and run them through the name research gauntlet as Wait But Why did.
Picking a character name is tricky. Maybe — dare I say it? — harder than picking a baby’s name. Bear with me here: a kid grows into a person. Over time, they aren’t defined by their name, necessarily, but it becomes just an appellation attached to that person. Sure, we may say that “John” is a “good strong name,” for example, but if John the kid turns out to be kinda puny in the strength department, we don’t think he is a failure as a “John.”
But a character? Well, they should grow, certainly, but they exist, fully formed, before the reader even enters the story. And a name is one way for the author to tell the reader something about the character. (I’m looking at you, Hunger Games).
Plus books take the “weird name” thing to a whole new level, with stories in different universes, fantasy scenarios, the far future. Heck, I’m reading “The Shipping News” now, and the main character’s name is “Quoyle,” as in a coil of rope. (There’s a rope/ship repeating pattern throughout.)
So names can really matter. Sometimes it seems like authors just take a “real” name and screw with the letters to make a character name, like “The Left Hand of Darkness.” Fantasy has a lot of names that are actually other nouns, often nature-related. Or names drawn from ancient Greece or Rome. (Related: Does anyone know where JRR Tolkien got the names for Lord of the Rings? Like, is there a guy out there who was named Frodo who got a lot of unwanted attention when it first came out?).
Naming a character can be loaded and fraught. How do you choose? Careful analysis and selection? Name origins? Concocted names? Or do you just go down a baby name generator and spin until something feels good?


Filed under writing

2 responses to “Is Your Character Stuck with a Fad Name?

  1. This is actually one of the reasons I love writing sci-fi — I can name my aliens whatever the heck I want! Obviously if I establish that one species has a certain type of name — maybe their language is really hard sounding with a lot of consonants — the name has to follow along that scheme, but otherwise … sky’s the limit 🙂 I like to draw inspiration for the names from my surroundings — for example, one of my characters has the last name of “Gara’dar”, which I am slightly ashamed to admit I got from driving through a suburb, seeing a lot of garage doors, and thinking, “Hey, that would make a decent name”.

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