Last week I was looking at the process of naming places in your fictional world. If you missed that post, you can find it here.
This week, I’ll be looking at naming characters. I have mentioned before that I really enjoy the process of naming things for whichever project I am working on. Giving someone (or something) a name is an important step in working out who/what they are. The same holds true for finding the title of the project itself.
While I was planning out what I would be looking at this week, I was all ready to wax lyrical about the importance of the meanings behind names and how this is the primary factor in my own choice of names for my characters.
That is, until I looked back through the characters I have named over the past few years, and realised that their names weren’t chosen for the meanings alone. There was actually a host of other factors that went into them (you’ll see what I mean soon).
But first of all…
The important of name meanings
Some writers truly take this to heart and every character in their work has a name with a significant meaning that reveals something about them or the role they are to play in the story. Just take a quick flick through the Harry Potter series, or The Hunger Games, and look into what the names mean. Some of them are truly eye-opening.
At the end of the day, a name is a word, and all words have meanings. When I am trying to decide on a character’s name, the first thing I do is look at the meaning (even if I then end up going with something completely different).
When my parents named me and my sister, they chose names that had pleasant meanings (literally in my sister’s case, as Naomi means ‘my pleasantness’).
In the real world, meanings are important when it comes to names. They can be an indication of the parents’ hopes for the child’s life. In fiction, they can be a foreshadowing of that character’s possible fate, or even hold a note of irony, if that character deliberately does not live up to the name he/she has been given.
As a jumping-off point I have a book of baby names on my shelf that is my first point of reference (yes, before Google) when a new character of mine needs a name.
But, as I mentioned above, the majority of my characters haven’t been named for the name’s meaning. As I took a trip down memory lane with these names, I was reminded of the many other factors that took precedent.
Here’s a few examples of what I mean
Medwyn, Iestyn, Haydn and Dylan (The Greenstone In The Fire)
No, these names did not stem from an obsession with ending in the letter ‘N.’ Last week, I talked about the Celtic/Welsh connections surrounding Aurelia’s world in my current Work In Progress. The connection extends to a fair few of the other characters in that particular world. All four of these characters are from Dunffin, with Medwyn and Iestyn (pronounced YES-tin) being knights who lived long before the book begins, and Haydn and Dylan having a significant role to play in getting Aurelia to where she is at the start of the book.
All of these are names I encountered while living in Wales, and they seemed appropriate for the Celtic-inspired people of Dunffin.
Runcorn (The Greenstone In The Fire)
Runcorn is not of the same world as Aurelia. He inhabits a world very similar to the Old West, and was one of the hardest characters I have ever named. Being, essentially, a gunslinger, I couldn’t give him a ‘normal’ name, like John or Alan, but finding a name that stuck took a while.
In the end, he was named after a town in Cheshire, that I just happened to travel through on a VERY long train journey (Carmarthen to Aberdeen – look it up; it’s a killer). I was thinking over what to name him as we pulled into the station at Runcorn… and the rest is history.
This particular source of inspiration also led to Runcorn’s horse being named Alston (after a village in Cumbria that I have travelled through on many occasions).
Nathaniel Griffin and Miranda Phoenix (The Coalition series)
I mentioned last week my Sci-Fi series based around five planets (each with a woman’s name). Well, these are two of the main characters in that series. They are very different from one another, but end up finding common ground. I wanted there to be a connection between then in their names and, for some reason that I can no longer remember (but it was really important at the time), giving them both mythical creatures as surnames seemed the best way to achieve this.
Jack Cavendish (Eye Witness)
Jack has the honour of being in possession of my favourite character name to date, and it came about thanks to three different factors.
Firstly, I wanted to name a character Jack. It is, after all, the coolest of all hero names out there (Jack O’Neill, Jack Bauer, Jack Dawson…).
Secondly, I had read somewhere (or overheard, I don’t remember all of the details for this) that a lot of heroic characters have the initials JC (John Connor, John Carter, James Cole, John Coffey…). A lot of the time, this is done to draw connections between the character and Jesus Christ. In terms of my Jack, this is not strictly speaking the case. He is actually more of a Noir-esque flawed/anti-hero.
The third factor came from The West Wing, which has a character called Oliver Babish (played by Oliver Platt). I was struck by how lovely it sounded to have a name ending in ‘ish’ and so looked for an opportunity to use it.
Thus, with these three converging factors, Jack Cavendish was born.
So there you are. My tips for naming characters (such as they are): start by looking at a name’s meaning and then jump off at a complete tangent until you land on something you like.
One Last Thought
Of course, the one thing to remember in the Name Game, whenever you decide to play, is that you always have the option to go back and change your mind. I mentioned last week that I have recently gone back and changed one of the place names in my Work In Progress. The same is true of several of my characters as well. My main antagonist in The Greenstone In The Fire has gone through several incarnations for his name. To begin with, I referred to him simply as The Wizard, then he was Olav for a while, before I finally settled on Thane. I can finally say I am happy with his name, but there are other characters in there who may go through a similar transformation before I’m finished.
This is because a character’s name may fit quite well when you first start working on something, but as the story evolves (and the characters with it), sooner or later those names may not work in the way you imagined.
Don’t be afraid to change your mind part way through if you need to. It is, after all, your story.