On Naming Characters

by Sylvia A. Winters

Naming characters is maybe one of my favourite things in the writing process. It’s fun, interesting, and sometimes a little frustrating. I’ve been writing in one way or another since I was a kid, and for my 12th birthday one of my best friends bought me a baby names book. She probably bought it for me just so I’d stop calling my characters things like Topaz and Obsidian. I think that book really sparked my interest in names and their meanings, and yes, I did stop choosing ridiculously frivolous names (well, mostly). That book is now very well thumbed, creased and annotated, and the pages are a bit yellow, but I still have it.

Although that book still sits on my shelf, I don’t really use it any more. I find the internet to be a much more comprehensive resource, and when I already have a strong sense of who my character is or needs to be, I can search names by meaning. Nothing is more annoying than a naming site that doesn’t have a meaning search. Of course, with a meaning search, you get names from all over the world. Many of those won’t be suitable for your character. If they’re a pale-skinned freckled nerd born and bred in Ireland, they’re not likely to be called Zakiyyah or Yu-Jie. I mean, they totally could be (maybe they’re adopted or their parents are well travelled, or Mum’s best friend in school was also called Yu-Jie), but it’s just a lot less likely.

My other big resource for names comes from my day job. I work in a student hall and I have access to about three years worth of student registers, so often names these days come from there. Especially if they’re more middle or upper class characters. A lot of the names we get here are things like Benedict, Tarquin, Quentin, Beatrice and Penelope. There are also quite a lot of good Asian and European names from our international students, so I can get quite a wide range of interesting names from these lists.

Even if you don’t have access to name registers, there are names everywhere: on the sides of buildings, official documents, emails, or on your bookshelf. Libraries, too, are a good resource. They might well have county records–births, marriages, deaths–that you can access. These might be especially good if you need a name that’s era specific.

I always try to avoid using the same name twice, even for side characters, even if I last used the name four years ago in a short story hardly anyone read. This means that there are some names that jump into my head for a character that I just can’t use, so I have a few stock names I sometimes use as placeholders until I can find something better. For instance, I might start out with a soft-spoken character called Daniel and he’ll eventually progress into an Arthur or a Noah, a Julian or a Florian, depending on his other characteristics.

For Bat’s Children, it was important to me (and the story) to use old Welsh names. Ceryn I just adapted very slightly from Cerys (love). Arwel (prominent) and Emyr (ruler) were from an online list of Welsh boy names and they just sounded right. It wasn’t so much about the meaning with them but the general feel of the name. That said, if Emyr had actually meant ‘flower’, I doubt I would have chosen it. Unless it was specifically a poisonous flower, or the kind that eats insects and small birds. All of these names are also relatively easy to pronounce from the way they’re spelt, which isn’t always the case with Welsh and Irish names (and I’m sure many, many others). I mean, Siobhan, anyone? But I would totally still use traditional spelling, e.g. Niamh over Neeve, a lot of the time, partly because I’m an arsehole and partly because it might just suit the character’s background better.

Names are often shorthand for the character’s background: where they’re from, what social class they belong (or don’t belong) to, even where they went to school or what job they’re in. For example, Tarquin Emerson Wedmore-Smythe is probably not a plumber from a council estate; he’s clearly from a family with quite a rich, upper class history, and probably rather wealthy. He most likely went to a public (private) school like Eton. He’s certainly not an ‘everyman’ character.

Another thing I consider is whether or not I’ll want to shorten the character’s name. In the Romance genre in particular, a lot of authors like a softer abbreviated version of the character’s full name to be used to convey familiarity, especially in emotional moments. I personally don’t use these that much. I don’t use them in real life either. I keep to what I know. How a person is introduced to me is usually how they stick in my head until the end of time, regardless of how many syllables their name has. But if I had wanted to do this, it’s unlikely I would have picked a name like Arwel, because really, there’s no way you can chop that and make it sound good. ‘Welly’ doesn’t exactly shout ‘badass highwayman’.

Once I’ve chosen a name, I Google it. It could already be a big main character in a popular show, or a well known actor, football player or serial killer. Several years ago I read a book where the main characters were called Grant and Cary, both perfectly acceptable names on their own, but put together I couldn’t stop picturing Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace.

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I often spend a lot of time choosing the right names for my characters. Names are important. They’re usually the first thing a reader learns about a character, and can influence their opinion of who that person is. Ultimately, it’s all down to personal choice, but a good name is important to make the character come alive. Plus they’re just plain fun to research!

Below is a short list of online resources for naming characters (or babies, I suppose):

http://www.meaning-of-names.com/search
http://www.babynameworld.com
http://www.welshboysnames.co.uk
http://www.welshgirlsnames.co.uk
http://www.surnamedb.com