Posted in Writing

Naming Characters

I have a bad habit.

I have more than one bad habit, in fact I have many. But the specific bad habit I was referring to is in regards to naming my characters.

I’ve always had a fondness for interesting names. Rare names I found by going through a name dictionary, or object names, or things I just flat out made up.

I don’t think there’s a lot wrong with doing this sometimes. After all, some parents do give their kids unusual or unique names. It’s fair enough that the occasional character would have such parents. More than the occasional character; I don’t think it destroys believability to have a bit of a higher rate of unusual names than in real life.

There are, however, a few things which I think ought to be taken into account when deciding whether to give a character a standard name, an unusual name, or a name that is just flat out unique.

1)How many characters have unusual names?

As I say, I don’t think it’s bad to have a few more unusual names than you find in reality. That’s one of the fun parts of writing, to me; being able to be inventive with names without sentencing any actual people to live with those names. But there’s a limit. If every single character has a unique, interesting sort of name, I personally find it sort of annoying to read. I’m talking about my own writing here; I find some of my old writing irritating because it’s just a series of these names, and… I don’t know, I can’t really explain this properly. It’s just nice to have some common names, or even just uncommon names which aren’t really surprising, not just a barrage of one unique name after another.

2) A name reflects the person who came up with it.

And that’s probably not the person who bears it.

I mentioned before how some parents do get inventive when naming their children. That’s the parents though. Most people don’t choose their own names, so I’m very much of the belief that a name shouldn’t be chosen because it reflects that character’s personality. People don’t know what personality a baby is going to have when they give it its name, so the two should not really have any link. Someone may have a name reflecting the personality their parents hoped they would have, but again that’s the parents. And I suppose it may happen that someone does end up reflecting their name, but that’s probably a coincidence, and the odds are they won’t.

I suppose a parent may have chosen a name with the intent of raising the child to be a person who reflects it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the child will. No matter how much a parent puts in to raising their child a certain way, people do have their own natural personalities, at the end of the day, they probably won’t be a perfect reflection, even if the parent is successful in their quest.

So yes, I am of the belief that unless a character has specifically chosen a name for themselves, it should not reflect who they are. A name is just a name, it doesn’t make a person who they are. If it’s a situation like in the last paragraph, then the reason for the name may affect them, but the name itself will not. For the most part.

3) How has this name affected them?

As I say, your name doesn’t really have much of an impact on who you are, but it can affect some experiences. My name is spelt slightly differently to the standard spelling, so I’ve gone through life with it being spelt wrong on a lot of things. That’s something you just accept in the end. If my name had the standard spelling, I imagine I’d probably not be as willing to accept it being misspelt on things as I am. But it doesn’t, so as long as it’s either the correct spelling, or the standard spelling, I’m OK with it (I am not, however, happy when someone decides to make up a third spelling. I can’t speak for everyone with a differently spelt name, but I’d say if you’re not sure, go with the standard, because at least that is an understandable mistake).

On the other hand, other people with names with a non standard spelling may be quite tetchy about misspellings, having had to deal with them all their lives, so may be a bit more set on making sure it gets spelt right.

As for names which are just unusual or unique in themselves, they may have more of an effect. The character may hate their name, they may be determined to give their own children the most normal names they can to make up for it. They may insist other characters call them by a nickname, either a shorter version of their name that doesn’t sound so unusual, or something that is just completely different. On my first day in a new class when I was at school, one boy answered the register by stating what he would rather be called. It was clear he found his name embarrassing, and wanted everyone to know as soon as possible not to call him by it. Would your character have a similar sort of response to people saying their given name? Or maybe they are or have been bullied for it, and that’s definitely something that will have affected them.

Others may not care at all. They may be proud to have an unusual name. Some characters who have completely normal names may wish they had something more unique. Some may just not care either way. You can do whatever you want with this, but if your character does have an unusual name, to the extent that people will comment on it, it is best that the writer know the character’s opinions about it before writing them. Names are only a minor thing, of course, it’s very unlikely they’d ever play a huge part in someone’s personality, but they would usually have some effect.
Aside from these points, if you’re going to use something incredibly unusual that readers will not recognise – as in, not an object name of anything – or something you just flat out made up, I do believe you have to be very careful. You want it to be pronounceable. When I was younger, I sometimes gave characters names that had about four or five possible pronunciations. I didn’t really notice because I knew how it was pronounced, because I had made it up, but I imagine if those stories had ever been published, it would have been just one more thing that would make readers want to throw them to the ground. It’s just annoying not being able to make at least a decent guess what a character’s name actually is. Plus, think about the poor souls who may, for whatever reason, end up reading your writing out loud.

Especially if you’re making it up, ask yourself, does this sound like it could be a name? Some made up names work better than others. Will people reading your writing be more likely to assume that you made the name up, or that it’s just an unusual one that they’ve not personally heard of? You’d do well to run it by some other people, see if they think it could work as a name. Try to imagine meeting someone called that in real life. What would your reaction be? Imagine using this name in ordinary conversation. Can you imagine people just saying it completely normally?

That’s just a few of my thoughts on naming characters. As always, I don’t consider myself any kind of actual authority on this matter, it’s just my thoughts. This post is nowhere near good enough for the time I’ve spent on it, but I don’t think it’s terrible. Thanks for giving it your time.

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