Naming Characters

For a long time, I’ve had a fascination with names.  I love reading about meanings, histories, and where a person’s name comes from.  (Thanks, Matilda!)  It may have started when I read about how J.K. Rowling used names in her own stories.  Take Argus Filch, caretaker and patroller of the hallways of Hogwarts.  Argus is a giant from Greek mythology who had a hundred eyes and was ordered to watch Io and prevent her from escaping – a fitting name for a patrolman.  I’ve always liked the idea that names can have meanings far beyond what the audience may first consider.

With that in mind, it can sometimes be difficult for me to come up with names for characters.  On the one hand, I’d like to have a name with an interesting history or meaning.  On the other hand, I don’t want the name to be completely unbelievable or totally transparent.  Let’s face it, no one is going to buy a name like “Nasty McBadguy.”  (Unless it’s a parody or a comedy story, in which case it’s fine.)  There’s also a third problem – the undescribable factor.  A character’s name has to “fit,” and while there are no rules at all about using a particular name, you know when a name sounds right and when it doesn’t.  It’s similar to how people will say things like, “Nicki?  She seems more like a Jennifer to me.”

Luckily for me, the internet has come to my rescue.  Baby name websites are actually great resources for picking out a name.  Quite often, the site give you small blurbs on where the names come from and if any famous people have had the name.  Babynames.com is exactly what it looks like, and Parents.com has a searchable database.  (I’ve often used the latter.)  If you really don’t know what you’re looking for in a name, or just need some inspiration, Behind the Name has a random name generator.  You can even customize the randomizer to your needs.  Do you need a female French name with a middle name that can go with the surname “Fontaine?”  No problem!  There are also options for ancient and mythological names, as well as silly categories like Hippy, Rapper, or Transformer names.

Sometimes, you’ve got a first name settled, but need help with a last name.  The earlier random name generator helps, but it does give you more than you need.  While certainly not exhaustive, it can be helpful to look at these lists of last names, ordered A to G, H to O, and P to Z.  Behind the Names also has this page to browse through surnames, as well as assorted categories.

Even if you don’t have any characters who need naming at the moment, it’s still interesting to look through the sites and see what you find.  Do you see yourselves using these sties?  How do you usually come up with names for characters?  Do name meanings do much for you at all?  Leave a comment below!

3 thoughts to “Naming Characters”

  1. You make a great point Kelsey. Finding the meaning of a name can be very difficult. I’ve spent tons of time, trying to find the perfect name to fit the character. I’ve never really gone too deep into the meanings of names (though J.K Rowling certainly does). For me, as silly as it sounds, there are some names that just sound right with the personality of the character. Obviously naming a female tomboy character “Clarabelle” won’t work and a football player may not like the name “Gustav”. But, how parents name their children, I think good names will always evoke a good feeling inside the author.

    I know it’s very illogical. And, I have no idea how I’ll name my own kids in the future. But for now, seeing if the name “feels” and “sounds” right is the best strategy that I have.

  2. Awesome. As if I didn’t already have enough on my plate with exams and paper looming in the near distance, but now I want to go look up the names of every single Harry Potter character and figure out the ultimate meanings.

    As a film critic, I’m always intrigued but what screenwriters choose to call their characters, and why. Sometimes, the reason is obvious. In my favorite movie, “Runaway Bride,” Julia Roberts plays Maggie Carpenter, who helps run he family’s hardware store. Carpenter. Hardware store. Okay, cool. But, perhaps, is she Maggie “Carpenter” because she’s been desperately seeking a man to build a solid foundation for her life, one that she should be building herself? Perhaps… perhaps… that’s the beauty of interpretation.

  3. For many characters, it is useful to have a name that easily identifies them or just sounds “right.” Using root languages and building off of them helps give a connotation to a character without being too obviously reflective of their role. The same thing goes for using classic (but not overly-obvious) references.

    However, when I don’t need to use this technique, or I am trying to make a character sound commonplace, I actually end up turning to the credits of a movie. I often worry about my character names appearing too made-up, so I just randomly choose some real people’s names. If I ever write something that ends up famous, these lucky people will be immortalized.

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