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?