A character by any other name….

The naming of your characters is an inevitable part of the writing process. But does it bear the same amount of significance as say, naming your child or pet?

For many, choosing names can be quite a fun project. In the beginning it was one of my favourite writing-related tasks. I even had a separate notebook for just people and place names. As a writer of short-stories however I find myself using this book less and less and my concern for the ‘right’ name dwindling. You would think that the opposite would apply. Writing so many different stories would require more names and a book to keep track of them all would be useful. Clearly this is not the case with me now.

It’s not that I don’t care what I call my characters. In fact I think the right type of name can sometimes add depth to a character. But because of the need to generate more (and different) ideas for each story, I now seem to spend less time and energy looking for names than I use to (sometimes I even leave a blank space where a character’s name should appear if I can’t think of what to call them immediately). If I get an idea or am on a roll, I really don’t want to lose my mojo by stopping to deliberate about names.

So what’s in a name? Would a rose by any other still smell as sweet? Will the name you choose impact on the way readers will perceive that character? Or is a name just that, a name?

Personally I do think a name can influence a reader’s perception. It does not fail to do so in real life.
Picture yourself at a party. You get introduced to a guy named Adolf. What is your immediate reaction/feeling?
I think even the most open-minded of us would experience that split second of negativity towards the dude in question. Although knowing me, my initial reaction would be to laugh in poor Adolf’s face with tactless and shameful impersonations of the Führer (don’t give me that look, you would probably be thinking it too!).

Taken from cardboiled.com

Thinking about the name game in my writing, I realized that I don’t actually have a particular method I use. Before I use to make use of baby-name books and websites, jotting down my favourites in my notebook, but nowadays, due to the time and energy factors mentioned above, I just take a few minutes to think about the character (read: daydream!) and then contemplate what sort of name this person looks like. E.g. he looks like a Tristan or she looks like an Amy. I know this sounds vague but I can’t describe my method any better (sorry! LOL).

When it comes to ethnical names I tend to fall into the trap of choosing a name whose meaning describes the character’s main attributes, sincerely hoping that nobody knowledgeable in that particular language would notice.
For example, I set one of my stories on an imaginary island of the East coast of Africa in the 16th century. It would only make sense that the characters should all have Swahili/Arabic names. Because I’m not familiar with the Swahili language, I had tons of fun researching names of Swahili origin. It was all new to me; I never came across any of these names before so I spent a considerable time searching. The villages on the Island are all governed by a Chief, whom I named ‘Akida’, which means leader (go figure!) and the village whore I christened ‘Bahati,’ which means beautiful (I couldn’t find a name that means ‘she who enjoys illicit, amorous relations with men’!).

Do you think this is a bit contrived?

What is your method for choosing names? And how much time do you spend researching them? And more importantly, if you’re a short story writer, do you find that the task of choosing names becomes more and more tedious over time? Or am I just being lazy?

15 thoughts on “A character by any other name….

  1. nelle says:

    Naming isn’t as much of a hindrance, since I scribble out novels. I too try to find names that suit ethnicity, and or age, since some names are popular during specific generations. I’ve also had to make up names for one story, and that was a boatload of fun.

  2. Nisha says:

    Even though I’m use to making up place names/locations, I’ve never tried making up people names. Maybe I’ll try it just for fun. 😉 Thanks for stopping by, Nelle!

  3. Chris G. says:

    Names are as key as anything else, I think. They help us – perhaps subconsciously – to flesh out our vision of a character in mind. Your Adolf example, for instance – compare him to a character named simply “Bob.” What are the different visuals you get, even before we describe anything about the characters themselves?

    Names give shape. Generic ones tend to give people a few good sighs, excessively complex ones quirk eyebrows – as do names that certainly don’t fit to a certain ethnicity or the like as we have previously painted a character. Perhaps names aren’t as much of a clincher as the big things we dwell upon – plot, development, style, etc. – but I feel, at least, that they are critical to character, and characters are certainly critical to a novel’s development. One shouldn’t skimp on their characters.

    • Nisha says:

      Thank you for your insight Chris!
      I totally agree that the right name helps us subconsciously and can actually make the job of a writer easier by providing a visual to help us with characterization. I find it so fascinating how people interpret names visually. The problem(?) with the more common names is that they might mean different things to different people. For example, to me, ‘Bob’ is a middle-aged guy with a beer belly (LOL) ;P Someone else might actually know a Bob who happens to be drop-dead gorgeous, and they will therefore see ‘Bob’ in that light!

      I will definitely not try to skimp on my characters from now on Chris! 😉 Thanks for visiting, will be checking out your blog too!

  4. Great post, Nisha! I feel that character names are important as well. My editor asked me to change the last name of one of my characters in my final draft and it was painful! But once I found one I felt comfy with, all worked out for the best.

    I prefer my names have personal significance, meaning they suit the characters well in my own head… This enhances their development, making for a better story. One of my protagonist’s names derives from my siblings names all scrambled together. 🙂

    • Nisha says:

      Okay, I’m interested to know why your editor wanted the name change! 😉

      I think it is important that we connect with our main characters and I suppose one way we can do that is by choosing a name that holds some personal significance for us, as you say. It’s so cool that you made up a name that way, your siblings must have been super-chuffed! May I ask what is your hero’s name?

  5. Naming characters for me, is such a fun part of the process. I think that a name well chosen can make a huge difference, and while I agree sometimes choosing a name with “meaning” can be a little contrived, if it helps you understand your character better, then I say go for it.

    What a well written post!

    • Nisha says:

      Why thank you dahling!

      I’m glad naming is still fun for you and you make a good point about understanding your character. I completely forgot that by giving your character a ‘meaningful’ name, you are in a way extending your own feelings towards them and that in a sense helps you to connect with them. For example, with Bahati, even though she has a questionable character, I still want the reader to feel sympathy for her because of the way she gets murdered. I could have chosen a more ‘darker’ or annoying name but I chose to make her ‘beautiful’ instead.

      Glad you liked my post Louise! 🙂

  6. Widdershins says:

    Names: Save your typo’s, you never know when one will be useful.

  7. jenniferneri says:

    About an hour ago on my drive home I was just thinking about my characters names! How timely to read this post now!

    I’m reading a great book, called Shade, and in it two of the characters (there are really only 4) are named George, and Gregory, and I have to say that at times I get confused. I think he names the two charaters similary because in the lead female’s mind, she crosses the two over. I’m in a similar situation, with two of my mc. Both C names. I did this purposely as well, it’s a small way of making them more of a unit, because outwardly they’re not. I’m not sure if using two similar names like this is hard on reader. Phew! what a long comment!! Sorry, I’m not usually so blablery!

    To answer your question, normally my characters are born with a name. If I have to change it for some reason, which has happened, I find it difficult but do adjust. I think that names def influence the way we respond to a character.

    • Nisha says:

      No need to apologise Jennifer, garrulity is most welcomed here! 🙂

      I have read in many ‘writing’ books that alliterating the names of main characters is a big no-no, but if you have a specific intent in mind then I dont think its wrong to break the rules here. Although I must admit that I do get confused sometimes if there are very similar sounding names in a book.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

  8. Administrator says:

    It depends on what kind of story I’m writing. If I’m writing a straight fantasy story I have the freedom to make up any name I want. I commonly used the names Xandak and Livk an when I was younger.
    But if I’m writing something with real world appeal I use “real” names. I actually found a great random name generator that allows you to choose what region or ethnicity you want.
    Although, I tend to agonize over names until I find one that I deem fit for the character, especially for the villainous types. I try to give them “sharp” names if you will. Names that sound deserving of a bad reputation.

    • Nisha says:

      This name generator you mention sounds pretty cool! I’m terrible at ‘creating’ names, so I suppose its a good thing that I dont write fantasy!

      Choosing the right ‘villainous’ name is probably just as important as your hero, if not more so. When I think about names like Voldemort or Hannibal Lector, they have become legends in their own right. Their names now hold important meaning in our popular culture. So I dont think its a bad thing to agonize over the right name for your bad guy. If you get it right it can do wonders for your story. 🙂

  9. Storm Rider says:

    I think names are quite crucial to a story… it send out a picture in the readers mind even before you start describing the character, at least it does for me, when I read..

    Just recently, when I was in the middle of writing a short story, I had to introduce a character, I gave him a certain name quickly, thinking I can change it later (didn’t want to spoil the lil flow I had going), and continued on with that name… Now, when time came to change the name, to try and choose a more ‘cooler’ name.. : P
    no matter how hard I tried, any other name.. it didn’t seem to fit that character in my head.. strange right?!

    I actually wondered myself, how others got themselves to nomenclate their characters, thanks for this.. : )
    Hey and I like the way you write… thoroughly enjoyed your other posts too.. : ).
    Have a good day!

    • Nisha says:

      Thank you Storm Rider(awesome name btw!)!! Glad you enjoying my humble little blog, I will be checking out yours too!

      So happy to meet a fellow short story writer 🙂 Yes, I’ve actually had that happen to me too, were I chose a name quickly but meaning to change it later but it stuck in the end! Sometimes our first choices are meant to be, even if we dont realise it at the time.

      Thanks for stopping by and you have a good day too! 😀

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