What’s In A Name? Characters in Fiction

Welcome to Part 4 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the “Writers on Writing: What’s in a Name? Characters in fiction were S.K. Dunstall as moderator, Mandy Hager, Mimi Mondal, and Zaza Koshkadze.

When I read the panel description, I knew I had to watch.

Charles Dickens was a master at choosing precisely the right names for his characters. Just hearing the sounds makes them come to life: Samuel Pickwick, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and more! Like Victorian England, speculative fiction seems to be a mecca for interesting characters doing strange and wonderful things. But do the people in our stories measure up to the Victorians’ most fascinating characters? From choosing names to sketching patterns of behavior, quirks, and a host of other personality traits, what does it take to create a well-rounded character in today’s genre literature? Are names and naming conventions as important as they once were?

The Importance Of Names

Names have meanings — intentionally or not. The culture (or lack of culture) that they derive from, the length, the consonant to vowel ratio, the often gendered endings, all of these things add nuance and depth to a name, before you even hit behindthename.com to get the etymological meanings intrinsic in the words.

While not all writers bake meaning into the names of their characters, they’re often selected to convey an aspect of the character’s personality. Plus, for those writers who do want to convey meaning, there are a multitude of ways to imbue their characters.

For some writers, the name inspires the whole story, while other writers struggle until publication time to find the right name for the character. And, of course, other writers who pick a name from their heads and move on. There is no right way to write.

Things To Consider When Selecting A Name

Do your research, there are a lot of things that go into a name, that may not be readily apparent when lost to the mists of time or across a cultural divide. These are things to consider both about the character you’re naming and the name you are considering using.

  • Culture of origin
  • Social class associated with its use (in whichever time period)
  • Character’s age (Doris, Karen, Melissa, Arya all suggest a particular generation in the United States)
  • Part of the country (if in the real world)
  • The meaning of the name
  • The rhythm and mouth-feel of the name, the full name, and any nicknames
  • How similar or dissimilar in spelling the characters in your story are
    • If you have to start with the same sound/letters, try to have drastically different lengths

NOTE: Baby Name sites are often inaccurate with their definitions, but once it’s on the internet, it gets requoted without sources

Creating Names

Things to be wary of when creating names that don’t already exist:

  1. Google them, make sure they aren’t a word in another language
  2. If you’re going for alien by adding Xs and Ys and such… that’s not so alien in some cultures. Remember that what you find alien, may not universally be so.
  3. If you’re modifying a name from another culture, run it past a couple people from that culture to make sure it’s not an offensive or socially mismatched looking name
  4. Readers usually prefer something they can pronounce

Using Real People’s Names

You can get into some very deep legal trouble if someone realizes that the character with their name was based on them — and they don’t like the characterization. There are some protections, but most authors try to avoid the whole issue.

  1. Send them a copy before you publish and make sure they sign off on the way you use their name
  2. Have them as a flattering cameo (very few people object to pleasant, minor depictions)
  3. Change a letter or three, to give yourself a level of deniability, or some other riff off of their name.
  4. If you’re picking names from a culture not your own:
    • check with someone from that cultural background, to make sure you’re not inadvertently using the name of an infamous criminal, or their version of “Charlie Brown”
    • pick something pronounceable in the language you expect to be published in (unless the name challenge is part of the story or you have another good reason)
    • One place to find names is from a newspaper from the culture you want your name from, don’t use headliners, and don’t mix first and last names, if you’re unfamiliar with naming conventions. Otherwise, you may get names from two opposing genders, factions, or worse.
  5. Even if you’re not writing in a different culture, watching T.V. and movie credits can be a great place to find naming inspirations

Do you struggle with naming characters?

Where do you get your naming inspirations?

And for you, which comes first? The names or the story?

2 thoughts on “What’s In A Name? Characters in Fiction

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