Namedropping: Finding Solid Names for Your Unique Characters

What’s in a character’s name? Everything. Here’s how you, the writer, can master the neglected art of moniker-making.
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The auditorium was dark except for a pool of light at the center of the stage. One of my all-time heroes, Joyce Carol Oates, was giving a guest lecture at my school, Michigan State University. As her book jacket photos suggested, she was a waif, standing there so pale behind the microphone, with a voice like a small stringed instrument.

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I was an intense young writer of short stories, and to this day I remember part of her lecture word for word.

She spoke about her deep feeling for her characters and her commitment to creating just the right character names for each one. I thought of how her characters stuck into me like darts, and I realized that some of their power came from their names: the creepy Arnold Friend in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The doomed Buchanan in “Wild Saturday.” The primeval Sweet Gum and Jeremiah in “The Death of Mrs. Sheer.”

Getting the names right requires patience, she said, and sometimes it’s hard. She said that occasionally in her sleep a character she had invented but not named would appear before her and stand in silence. Oates extended her thin white arm, hand cupped. “And I ask, ‘What is your name? Tell me your name!’”

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Since then, I’ve taken character naming very seriously. It’s something far too many writers neglect. The best authors know that a fitting name for a character is a precious gift to readers. Some names resonate as miniature poems, whether masculine or feminine:

  • Dracula (Dracula, Bram Stoker)
  • Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote)
  • Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)
  • Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray)
  • James Bond (Dr. No and others, Ian Fleming)
  • Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell)
  • Mr. Skimpole (Bleak House, Charles Dickens)
  • Mrs. Gummidge (David Copperfield, ditto)
  • Little Toot (Little Toot, Hardie Gramatky)
  • Cinderella (folktale, timeless)

Like Oates, you’re rarely going to come up with that terrific name instantly; you’ll have a character who demands to be born, and you’ll have to start writing him or her (or it) without a name. In such cases, I use “Evil Cutie” or “Brother A” until I can really work on a name.

I’m against using nonsense names as some authors do for ease of typing during their draft phase. “Jiji,” for instance, uses just the first two fingers on your right hand, in the central part of the keyboard, and it could definitely save you keystrokes during the course of a long novel, especially if your character ends up being “Charlotte Summerington.” However, there is more to writing fiction than saving keystrokes. Every character’s name interacts with you as you write, melding with your ideas and feelings for the character. You don’t want to stay dissociated from your characters’ names for any longer than necessary.

Dickens is great to study for character names. He wrote most of his novels as long magazine serials; their character-packed success depended on every name being quickly and easily distinguished in the reader’s mind—and held there from one month to the next. Contemporary British authors must have inherited some of his DNA, because they tend to be terrific namers too (more on them in a moment).

If you think about it, character names come in two basic breeds: those with carefully crafted meanings, and those that simply fit your players like a silk suit, inexplicably perfect. We’ll look at both kinds, along with strategies for creating them.

Type 1: Layered Names

First up are the “meaningful” names, which pull back the skin of your characters and can be analyzed quite like
literature itself:

Ironic Names

Large chunks of Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling 44 Scotland Street series concern the difficult life of Bertie Pollock, an Edinburgh schoolboy. Two of his schoolmates are lads named Larch and Tofu. Though minor characters, they’re there for a distinct purpose.

The names interact with a savory irony. Tofu and Larch’s names obviously have been bestowed by parents with finely tuned ideals. Political correctness abounds: One boy’s name is a legume paste, the other a tree. Yet the characters, we learn from their actions and words, are as shallow and phony-hearted as their names are sophisticated.

Smith gives us, by contrast, the simple, direct, honest Bertie. He is worth more than both Tofu and Larch put together. His is an ordinary, unpretentious name; his surname, Pollock, is a common fish. Bertie, then, is the humble everyman who must endure everybody else’s idiotic, self-serving vanities.

But for pure triumphal irony, can anything top the Veneering family, of Dickens’ classic Our Mutual Friend? Such a vaguely grand-seeming name for a vaguely grand family. Simultaneously, of course, their name clues us in that they are nothing but surface. And we enjoy watching them try—and fail—to live up to their banal aspirations.

Ironic names are easy to create: Just think of your character’s opposite qualities and brainstorm liberally. Let’s say you’ve got a clumsy guy who lives with his parents and aspires merely to avoid work and download porn. You could give him an ironic name like Thor or Victor or Christian or even Pilgrim. Or you could give him a first name that’s a family surname, like Powers or Strong.

Authors who want to use ironic character names should strictly limit themselves to one per story or novel.

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Symbolic Names

We love symbolic names—sometimes. Carson McCullers, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, manages a good one with John Singer, a deaf-mute who essentially acts as the prophet in the story. Harry Angstrom, the hero of John Updike’s Rabbit books, has, I think, a particularly good symbolic name. First of all, we have angst right in there. Then, as you’ll remember from science class, an angstrom is a teeny-tiny unit of length. An allegory for a man who feels his life is too small—and who by his actions shows that he might also be a bit insecure about a certain part of his anatomy?

Be warned, though: Symbolic names are treacherous shoals for authors. Way too many novels (first or otherwise) feature bad guys named Grimes and heroes with some form of truth or justice incorporated into their names. Also, we have too many heroines with the word sun in their names, more detectives called Hunter or Archer or Wolf than we can count, and multitudes of good guys with the initials J.C. (Jesus Christ).

Here’s the key: Symbolic names work only if they’re not heavy-handed. Challenge any symbolic name with the question: Would a 12-year-old get it during a first reading? If yes, trash it! Keep looking for something subtle, based on your character’s deepest traits, or use another approach, like:

Connotative Names

A connotative name suggests without being explicit.

For instance, in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the handsome hunting guide is straightforwardly named Richard Wilson, while the client he cuckolds has the fussy name of Francis Macomber. (For some reason in Western culture, Francis sounds sissy-ish, perhaps because it’s similar to the feminine form, Frances. A fair number of spoiled pantywaists in literature bear that name; Scout’s nauseating cousin in To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind.) In the end, however, Macomber achieves true heroism (albeit briefly!), while Wilson is stuck with Macomber’s sexy, monstrous widow, Margot.

Another example: Draco Malfoy in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Here we have the root suggestions of dragon (draco is Latin for it) and malformed, malice, and malfeasance. A great many other Rowling characters are perfectly named.

You can make up connotative names by asking yourself questions like these as you brainstorm your characters: What expression is on his face when he looks in the mirror in the morning? If she were an animal, what would she be? If this character were a building or a political party or a piece of furniture, what would he be? How is her self-image at odds with reality?

Namedropping: Finding Solid Names for Your Unique Characters

Phonetically Suggestive Names

Dickens again. In his masterpiece Bleak House, he tells the story of the mother of all lawsuits, “Jarndyce and Jarndyce.” And the suit drags on, and your flesh creeps as that name hammers at you throughout the book: jaundice, jaundice, jaundice.

Ayn Rand’s despicable character Wesley Mouch (weasly mooch) from Atlas Shrugged is a pretty good example of a name that sounds like an epithet.

Let’s make up a phonetic name that fits a character. What if we had a coach who gambled on his basketball team? Well, it’s about winning and losing, and it doesn’t matter if you can make money betting either way. Winning, Winton, Win, Lose, Fail, Failer.

How about Winton Fayhler (win failer)?

Type 2: Plain Names

What of names that have no hidden meaning, but just play off the ear like powerful verse?

  • Howard Roark (The Fountainhead, Rand)
  • Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy)
  • Frankenstein (Frankenstein, Mary Shelley)
  • Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams)

Such names are the holy grail of authors. You know them when you see them—the rhythm, the grace, the style!—but defining them is almost impossible. Fortunately, it’s also irrelevant. What we need are ways to generate those lovely combinations of consonants and vowels.

Judging by successful character names, it seems a strong first syllable in both first and last names works well, regardless of the number of syllables. (Harry Potter, Jo March, Robinson Crusoe.)

Here’s how you can generate pure plain good names:

Collar Them in Your Dreams

Awaiting inspiration is perhaps the most organic way to name your characters, though it could take some time. Seriously, though, often you’ll be working with a character and his name—complete, perfect, incontrovertible—will simply pop into your head. It can happen while you’re writing, or weighing plums at the grocery, or drifting in dreamland. Accept these pieces of luck as your due. Expect them.

(Can You Use Someone Else's Character in Your Book?)

Get Bookish

Remember phone books? Leaf through yours, and try putting different first and last names together. Phone books, however, are usually limited regionally. If you live in a small town in Minnesota, for instance, you’re going to find a whole lot of Johnsons and Olsons but not many Garciaparras and Hoxhas. I keep a couple of baby-name books handy when I’m in the early stages of an outline or draft. I also save commencement programs.

Surf the Web

You can go online and find helpful reference sites that list first names and surnames by national origin, and you’ll find sites that tell you name meanings, etc. You’ll also find assorted sites that simply generate names. Browse around.

Surf the Original Web

For real inspiration, I suggest going over to your local library, where you’ll be amazed at the wealth of name stuff you’ll find in the reference department. Besides general encyclopedias, which are rife with names from all eras, you’ll find encyclopedias on every specialized subject from military history to music, sports, radio and television, steamships and railroads, law enforcement, crime, and more. All of these books are crammed with names. The real pay dirt in your library is in the genealogy section. Here you’ll find books packed with names from all over the world, along with dates, cities, and other location names, too. You might even get ideas for characters right out of those books—or whole plots, for that matter. That’s the serendipity of browsing, the fostering of which physical libraries are still unsurpassed.

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