What's in a Name? Character Naming Basics for Authors

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Last week I gave you a whole list of fantastic name generators. Then I got to thinking: It’s easy to generate random names, but they need to fit your character to be effective. You need to explore what’s in a name before looking to a generator, or even your imagination, for the right one. These rules may seem simplistic, but following them will help avoid a character moniker that doesn’t jive with their personality, looks, gender, or position in society.

What’s in a Name — Gender

Let’s face it, in the real world, you’re stuck with the name you’ve got for the most part. In our world, you might find someone with an ultra-feminine name, like Clarissa, as an army general. In fiction, though, you have the option of pairing your character with a name that denotes their personal attributes — or not. In fiction, you might want to name your female general Casey, a much more masculine sounding name than Clarissa. Or, perhaps you leave her with a feminissima moniker because you want to juxtapose her cruelty against her soft looks. Or perhaps she is a new kind of general, one that embraces her feminine side, and this is important to your story. Either way, you’ll need to recognize what’s in a name that makes it seem masculine or feminine so you can choose wisely.

Girl’s names have more vowel sounds, boy’s have more consonants.

Endings like – issa, ella, etta, ah, elle, and just plain “a” usually indicate femininity; consonant endings or endings with “o” or “u” lean more to the masculine.

Here’s an example of a made-up name in both masculine and feminine forms — can you choose which is which?

Norell     Norelle

See how that extra “e” makes the second name seem more feminine? The first choice would be better for masculine or androgynous usage.

Of course, there are many names that are androgynous, meaning they can be used by any gender. Chris, Pat, and Kelly are just a few of these. For more examples, here’s a list that gives you male/female and androgynous versions of common names. If you have a character with a unique gender, or who is gender fluid, an androgynous name might be a good choice.

What’s in a Name — Personality

Who’s more likely to be a girly-girl — Ashlyn or Greta? Who’s more sensitive — Egeh or Cassyon? I’ll bet you picked Ashley and Cassyon for your answers. Do you know why? The guttural “g” sound in Greta and Egeh makes the names sound forceful and abrupt, not the attributes you’d associate with extreme femininity or sensitivity. Consider the personality of the character when choosing a name. Names that sound discordant or guttural are good for abrasive, abrupt or evil characters. Ones that flow can help exaggerate a character’s sweetness, calmness, or poise.

What’s in a Name — Position

Another way to help bolster your reader’s vision of your character is to use a name that conveys the character’s job or position in society. Going back to medieval times when people’s surnames were indicative of their industry, you can name a metalworker “Smith” or a saddle maker “Tanner”. But you can also use these names to convey deeper meaning as well. “Taylor” might mend souls, minds, or rifts between populations. And Bruer (Brewer) might stir up rivalries.

Names are useful to show a character’s rank in society, or the status of the society itself. Let’s look at two names of peoples from the television science fiction series “Defiance“.  There are many sapient species present on post-apocalyptic earth, two of which are the Castithans and the Irathients. If you don’t already know, which do you think is supposed to be more civilized? If you chose, Castithans, give yourself a star. Notice how “Castithan” flows off your tongue. It’s elegant, with sibilant sounds. “Irathient”, on the other hand, makes you think of “irate” or “irritated”, which pretty much defines the culture of this group.

What’s in a Name — Final Points

Names can help you give readers a fuller, more illustrated, view of your characters.  A name can be feminine, masculine, or androgynous. It can help convey personality or status. It can define your character’s mindset, their job description or foreshadow their destiny.

But don’t forget that giving a character a name that is opposite from their actions, looks, or personality can be effective, too. Doing this can have readers pre-judging a character, only for you to slowly and effectively reveal their “true” nature over the length of your story. This type of naming strategy is also useful for throwing a character’s most important attributes into high relief, for instance, naming a particularly evil creature an unassuming or sweet name makes it somehow seem even more evil.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to naming. You’ve got your imagination. You’ve got these great naming generators. And now you have some ground rules, too. What’s in a name? You decide!

See you on the next page!

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