What’s in a (Character) Name?

As writers, we spend an excessive amount of time coming up with names for our characters. Sometimes, for me at least, the character proudly announces who they are—name, history, the whole shebang. Some characters are a bit more stubborn and hoard that information like gold.

My character Meegan Redoak has been with me for so many years, I think she’s part of me by now. Meegan and her sidekick, Skrie, hold a place in my imagination with a story that they have been patiently waiting to tell for decades. Their story was ahead of its time, and that’s why it hasn’t been a priority. Now I’ll have the time to flesh that story out and breathe life into their tale.

Literature is full of appropriately named heroes and villains. Charles Dickens was adept at masterful character names. Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the best names in literature. Dickens was able to describe many of his characters by simply naming them. Sherlock Holmes is another great name, as is his nemesis, Professor Moriarty.
But not all of us are Charles Dickens or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so we are left to trying to figure out the perfect name for our characters.

So, how do you find names for your characters?

(C) 2019 JJ Shaun
List of potential character names.

I use a variety of sources, depending on what I’m writing. For example, if I’m writing in a fantasy setting, I might look online at a fantasy name generator. If I’m writing more in a contemporary setting, I’ll look in a baby naming book, or I’ll go to the Character Naming Sourcebook, by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Sometimes I just want a descriptive word in a different language, which is how I came up with the name of Skaathe (pronounced ‘skāt) for a rogue character of mine. It’s a variation of the Irish word scáth, the description of which is “shadow.”

One writer friend of mine has a more extensive literature and history background than I, and he uses meaningful names from mythology for some of his characters. Many other authors also use mythology to significant effect in their novels. I still need to study before I reach that level of knowledge. Most stories I write are based on either what’s happening today, or my fantasy world of the Adaran Continent. And Adara is not wholly fleshed out. This world is being built from the bottom up, with vague ideas of what the top-down hierarchy should be.

So, what’s in a name?

Depends on the writer. One of the protagonists of my novel is named “Leo Morgan.” He told me his name right away. Leo is a composite character who was inspired by real-life friends. His friends, however, don’t seem to have preferred names, so I’m writing around their names using “MC” and “GF” as placeholders. I haven’t settled on names that seem to fit the characters—or rather, they haven’t told me their names yet.

As I mentioned previously, Charles Dickens was a master at naming his characters. We could all learn from him as well as Mark Twain, Robert Heinlein, and a plethora of others.

Only you, as the writer, know the characters well enough to give them their monikers. Sometimes it’ll come to you as you write their bio, sometimes as you write a specific scene in your novel. Online resources abound. I did a search for “character name generator” and came up with some fifty-one million results, along with more suggestions for finding character names.

The only limit to character names is your imagination. Sometimes you just need to sit at the keyboard and let your characters tell you about themselves.

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