Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name

When writing a story there are a lot of things to consider: plot, pacing, word count, setting, titles, voice, solutions, etc. The list goes on and on. And if just one of these laundry list of items falls flat, the whole story can suffer because of it.

Today, on the blog, we're going to talk about the power of a character's name. Some may think that naming a story's character/characters is a simple task. But surprisingly, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a name.

For example, are there other REALLY famous literary characters that already have this name? In my latest picturebook W.I.P, this was a big problem for me. And now, I have to figure out how I'm going name a dog that is found after kids make a wish on a turkey's wishbone, without naming the dog Wishbone.

Is this name too hard for your target audience to pronounce? If your target audience is birth to pre-k children, than Chrysanthemum might not be a great character name for one of your characters. However, if your target audience is early, school aged children, this could be really funny and kind of perfect. In fact, it might just add to the story's theme.

Does your character's name add something to the story? If Fudge from the Judy Blume series were called Bobby, for example, would the story have been as funny? I think not! In fact, the whole storyline behind his name was one of the funniest parts. Imagine a boy kicking his Kindergarten teacher because she won't call him by his nickname, Fudge. Now that's hilarious to both kids and teachers alike!

So what are some ways that we can go about naming our characters? Below is a list of 5 ways that you might try to use.

1. Name your character after his/her character traits. For example, if your character went through a terrible life situation and is struggling with finding a way to deal with her faith and the terrible loss, naming her Faith might be a great idea. Then, you could even name the book Finding Faith so that you're talking about her finding herself and her actual faith.

2. Pay your respects to loved ones by using their names in your stories. In my opinion, this is even better than dedicating a book to them. If one of my manuscripts is ever sold, it's almost certain that one of the characters will be named after one of my children, my parents, grandparents, or an old family name. In my manuscript, The Peanut Butter Prince, the princess is name after my mother and the queen is named after my grandmother. In my manuscript, Let's Go Fishing, the two brothers are named after my two sons. And, in The Twins of Er and Est, the two brothers are named after my dad and dearly, departed Uncle Larry.

3. Name your characters after constellations. J.K Rowling is known to use this strategy from time to time. Brother's Sirius and Regulus are examples.

4. Use a baby name generator. This is actually good for two reasons: 1. It will help you discover the meaning of the name. This can really help you with making your character live up to their character traits. For example, this pb author once toyed with writing a YA novel in which a prophet child was born. In said ms, I gave my child prophet the name Jeremiah simply because it was biblical. Little did I remember at the time, but Jeremiah was actually a prophet. Score! And his name meant 'to rise up'. Double Score! Turns out, I couldn't have picked a more appropriate name. 2. You can see all the different spellings of the name and pick something that is more unique for your character. After all, we all want to be unique, right?

5. Use intitials kind-of like a Mnemonic device, but with a twist. Instead of using it in a way that helps you remember a thing, you use it in a way to spell out a character's traits or interests instead. I, personally, love it when authors do this. For example, if you have a story about a kid who loves bats, maybe could you name him Benjamin Alexander Tripp. Alone the name looks completely normal. But when you just look at the initials, it spells out 'bat'. Trust me. Readers love little hidden things like this. That's why the Da Vinci Code was so successful.

Picking a character name is anything BUT easy! After all, would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? I don't think so! Sorry Shakespeare, but I have to disagree with you on that one!

What are some ways that you have used to pick your characters' names? Is there something that you have tried that is not on this list? Something that might making picking names a little easier? I'd love to hear your feedback!


  1. Naming characters is seriously my favorite part. I love to do it. And I can't start writing until the name is perfect.

    This did pose a problem for my last book cause I couldn't find a name for my MC. Everyone else in the novel was named, but because I didn't have one for my MC, I couldn't start. Finally I settled on a name that I thought was perfect. Most readers hate it though -- or they just don't get it cause the name is usually a girl's name.

    I've used baby name generators. I've found names that meant something and that fit the character. Your example of Faith is funny because I had a character named Faith. The book was to be about the MC having to find faith that he would pull through and then the girl Faith, losing faith and herself. I changed the story a little though (so I wasn't as focused on the girl) and her name changed to better fit her new role.

    I made up one name -- I just liked the way it sounded. Turns out, I later found that it was a real Russian name.

    One character is named after one of my students because he pushed me to write the book -- so sort of a dedication.

    I can't think of any methods you didn't list. But a name is so important.

  2. I fuss a lot over names. No.4 is usually my default way of finding a good name for a character; something's bound to come up on all those sites!

  3. I think picking character names is one of the HARDEST things to do! And I agree with Quinn that I just can't start writing until I've got the right name for my MC. Because the name IS the character. So if I've got the wrong name I can't write the right character!

    I almost ALWAYS look for meanings of names (I'm one of those who likes the hidden details :-)). But occasionaly it's just because I happen across a name I like the sound of.

    Interesting post :-)

  4. These are great ideas. I have a little perk since I work for an international airline I hear odd and interesting names all the time. I've got a notebook with names written down that I resort to frequently.
    Naming my characters is one of my fave parts of writing a story.

    I'm in central FLA BTW. :)

  5. I use the baby name generator a lot when picking out a name. Love your ideas, I'll have to use some of those. The thing I hate is when you have a name already picked out but then you read some literary agents blog, and she happens to mention your characters name, and if she sees that particular name one more time in a query letter, she's jumping out the window. That truly happened to me.

  6. Oh what a fun read. My kids are 15 and almost 12, so we haven't read any of these for years, but you hit on several of my favorite kids' books! (instead of Wishbone, what about Lucky?)

    My most intentional names are for my trilogy, the first of which i've been editing--the characters all have Romanian roots so I went to a Romanian name site and chose the names that seemed to still roll pretty easily off an English speaking tongue (both for first and last names), though one of the MCs is Athena (which is obviously Greek) and I play on that, too.

    Usually I go more with a gut (though I wrote fan fiction once upon a time, and because JK Rowling is so loyal to those star names for the Black family, I correctly named both Orion (Sirius' dad) and Cygnus (Bella's dad) before she published her family tree. Very satisfying...

  7. My favorite baby name website is:

  8. Love those baby name sites on google...and I like to choose a name which has a particular meaning, at least for some characters. It adds a nice extra layer of complexity.

    If writing something set in the real world I also like to refer to name popularity by year - so I can use a name common for people that age. Hopefully that little bit of extra effort adds authenticity.

  9. @All, naming a character is difficult and exciting, all at the same time. A lot of thought can go into the naming of a character. And, to be honest, I think naming my children was a little easier for me. I simply put a list of names that I loved on a piece of paper, and my husband circled the names that he could live with. Easy peasy! In the end, Jacob and Joshua came out won out. Ranked #'s 1 and 6 of the most popular boys' names.