What’s in a name? Well, a lot, actually. The perfect names expand your imaginary universe and can help establish your characters and their world right from the get-go, which is a big ol’ bucket of help when writing a short story.
Here are five things to think about when choosing names for your characters:
- Respect Your Genre
This is especially important in fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. Culturally-inspired names add another layer to your world building and helps ground your work in a real place and time, even if your tale is fantastical in nature. And just as period costumes, manners, and vocabulary set the tone for your historical story, so, too, can the proper names.
If your story is inspired by legends from other cultures, this is fairly easy to do. Since my middle grade series, The Adventures of Finn MacCullen, is based on the Irish legend of The Boyhood Deeds of Finn McCool, I took the Gaelic spelling of Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhail) and Anglicized it to Finn MacCullen. A tried-and-true practice within the fantasy genre, but it is still an effective technique.
J.K. Rowling, in her Harry Potter series, did a wonderful job taking roots words—many which had a Latin or Greek origin—for her characters’ names and helped reinforce their personalities. For example: Serverus (severe), Albus (white), Draco (dragon). She also used alliteration (Rowena Ravenclaw, Salazar Slytherin, Helga Hufflepuff, etc.) But beware—too much of a clever thing is too clever by half.
- Age Appropriate
Is the name appropriate for the age of your character? Google the baby names for the year your character was born, not the time period they are living through in your story. For most part, a teen born in the 1950s will have a different name than a teen born in the early 2000s. BabyCenter.com is one of my favorite sites because I can narrow my search perimeters by gender, year, popularity, ethnicity, countries, etc. Here’s the link:
- A New Twist
That said, you might want to make your character stand out by giving them an unusual name (perhaps an old family name). In my upcoming book, Del Toro Moon, the two brothers are named Matt and Ben. Ordinary names, to be sure. But I gave both names a twist by making Matt short for Mateo instead of the more familiar Matthew, while Ben is short for Reuben, not Benjamin.
- Music to the Ears
Say your characters’ names aloud. How do they “feel” when you say them aloud? A hard consonant (B, D, G, T, etc.) can project strength or power. Softer vowels (A, M, N, O, etc.) might indicate a gentler personality. Sibilant sounds (S, Z, sometimes P or Th) can go either way. One of my characters from Del Toro Moon is a talking Andalusian war stallion named Turk. The T and K make hard sharp sounds, which fits the stallion’s persona. And it rhythms with Jerk. Turk the Jerk. Did that little nugget of writer-y gold find its way into the story? Oh, you bet your boots it did.
- Mind Your ABCs
Make sure none of your characters have similar names: Ken/Ben. Mac/Max. Casey/Kaci/Cassie/Kelsey. Olive/Olivia. Jim/Jem. Readers will get frustrated having to pause to figure out who’s who, especially at the beginning of the story.
One way to avoid this is to make sure your main characters’ names start with a different first letter. A lot of readers only skim the first few letters of a name. You want your readers turning pages, not slowing down to remember if Mike is the romantic lead or is it Mitch?
I admit the geek in me takes great joy in researching and selecting just the right name for my characters. It helps me understand who they are, why they are the way they are, and what they want out of life. I hope these suggestions help you, too, in your writing adventure. Now, go sling those words—the world is eager for your story.
About the Author
Darby Karchut is a multi-award winner author of over a dozen novels. Her latest book, Del Toro Moon, releases Fall 2018. She hangs out at www.darbykarchut.com and online all over the place. Stop by and say howdy.