Naming Your Characters
Romeo and Juliet. Scarlett and Rhett. James Bond. Miss Marple.
All these names conjure up an instant image. As soon as we hear them, we feel we know something about the characters they represent, their personality traits and quirks, their strengths and their vices.
Suppose Scarlett was named Henrietta, or Rhett was named Bartholomew. Would they be the same impulsive, romantic couple with those names? If James Bond were named Calvin Jones, would he still be a dashing, intrepid spy?
Your character’s name is often the first thing the reader encounters, and it makes an immediate impression in the reader’s mind. It’s important you choose a name that will make the right impression. But how do you go about doing that?
When you choose a name for your baby, you’re taking a chance because you have no idea how the child will turn out, what his or her personality will be like. We have all met people whose names don’t seem to fit with their personalities.
When you’re naming a fictional character, however, you have a great advantage. You know what type of character you will write about, what traits you want him to have, what quirks you want her to display, what his weaknesses are. Under these conditions, there’s no excuse for not getting it right!
The names you choose can suggest a certain social or ethnic background, or societal position. It may indicate whether the person is meticulous or messy; brave or cowardly; bold or circumspect; flamboyant or mousy.
Keep a list in your journal or in a Word file of names that intrigue you in some way. You may have heard the name in a conversation, or on television or radio. You may have seen the name in the obituaries column, on Facebook or Twitter, or in a theater or music program. When you write a name down in your journal, make a few quick notes about what you think the character’s personality is like.
A book on choosing a name for your baby is an invaluable reference tool for writers. Books like this are available cheaply, often in the racks at the grocery store checkout; and the Internet abounds with naming websites. They generally list male and female names, their meanings, nicknames and variations on the names. Sometimes you can find a name whose meaning has something to do with your character or plot. Though your reader won’t know the meaning of the name, you will know it, and it will strengthen your writing accordingly
According to one baby naming book, “Henrietta” means “mistress of the home,” and “Bartholomew” means “son of the furrows; a plowman.” Thus, if we renamed Scarlett and Rhett as Henrietta and Bartholomew, we’d be turning them into a farmer and his wife! And poor Calvin “James Bond” Jones would be “bald.” Not a very dashing image, is it?
Some other practical tips on choosing a name: Don’t choose a first name for a character that ends with the same letter with which the last name begins. This can make the name hard to pronounce; for example, Jonas Smith is going to produce a lot of hissing when your reader says the character’s name out loud.
The number of syllables in a name can hint about the character’s personality, as can the number of hard consonants or soft vowels. Short, monosyllabic names full of gutteral sounds like “Rhett Butler” indicate someone who is strong, bold, and no-nonsense, while flowing, multi-syllable names like “Melanie Hamilton” indicate a softer, more romantic personality.
Make sure you pronounce your character’s full name out loud, to be sure it rolls easily off the tongue and doesn’t sound awkward.
Don’t forget to take into account the cultural and ethnic background of your characters when choosing a name. For instance, the name “Keely” means beautiful and graceful in Gaelic, and might be the perfect first name for your historical romance heroine.
There are numerous sites on the Internet that you can use to help choose a character’s name. At https://www.infernaldreams.com/names/index.htm you will find an “onomastikon,” or dictionary of names. This site lists names from around the world, both first and last names, ancient and modern. For instance, if you’re writing a book set in ancient Greece, you can choose names from “Europe,” then “Ancient,” then “Ancient Greece.” Suppose you choose “gods” next. You will find dozens of gods’ and goddesses’ names listed, most with a descriptive attribute.
Visit https://www.kabalarians.com/, a site run by the Society of Kabalarians of Canada. At this site you can look up the meaning and personality type of a name, based on a mathematical principle developed by the Kabalarians. For example, if you look up the name “Rhett,” you discover that someone with this name is very aggressive and independent, has big ambitions, excellent business judgment, a versatile, restless nature, is seldom satisfied and is always seeking something new. For an additional fee, you can submit your own name, first and last, and receive an extensive 25-30 page report.
At https://www.babycenter.com/babyname/ , the Baby Name Finder site, you can search for names by gender, country or ethnic origin, starting or ending with a particular letter, or a particular number of syllables. You can find the most popular names of 1998, or you can discover that the most popular boy’s name in 1880 was John, and the most popular girl’s name was Mary, whereas the most popular boy’s name in 1998 was Michael, and the most popular girl’s name was Kaitlyn. There are naming chats and bulletin boards, and you can search for a name that has a specific meaning.
When naming your characters, be sure you make their name an asset, something that will assist them in their journey through your story. I just learned that my name, “Elizabeth,” means someone who is idealistic, has a sensitive nature and a desire for culture and the refinements of life, someone who works best in a relaxed environment at tasks involving writing and concentration. Hey, I can live with that.
No sooner does psychic Lottie Baldwin pull up stakes and move to Cheyenne, North Dakota, than she finds herself up to her neck in a series of mysterious robberies. Can Lottie and the handsome new man in her life, deputy sheriff Harlan Erikson, solve the crime spree before Lottie becomes the next victim?
Elizabeth Delisi is the author of Lady of the Two Lands (a Bloody Dagger Award winner and Golden Rose Award nominee); Since All is Passing (an EPPIE Award finalist and Bloody Dagger Award finalist); and Fatal Fortune (a Word Museum Reviewer’s Choice Masterpiece), the first in the Lottie Baldwin Mystery series. Observant Oracle, the second story in the Lottie Baldwin Mystery series, is now available; and Mistletoe Medium (prequel to Fatal Fortune) will be available soon.
She is also the author of a short story collection, The Midnight Zone; an erotic romance, Practical Passion; Troubled Spirits, a paranormal tale; and her contemporary romance anthology, Heart Spell, will be released soon.
Elizabeth is an instructor for Writer’s Digest University. She has taught Creative Writing at the community college level, and has edited for several small publishers. She holds a B.A. in English with a Creative Writing major from St. Leo University. Elizabeth is currently at work on Deadly Destiny and Perilous Prediction, sequels to Fatal Fortune.
Troy is a freelance writer, author, and blogger who lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho with the love of his life and three very talented dogs.
Passionate about writing dark psychological thrillers, he is an avid cyclist, skier, hiker, all-around outdoorsman, and a terrible beginning golfer.