For a long time I hated naming my characters. No sooner did I settle on a name and I would realize another book (or three) used the same name. The main reason I got myself into this renaming mess was because I followed some widely accepted writing advice, I used charts of popular baby names for the years my characters were born in.
Because every other writer is using those same darn charts!
Lately, I’ve also realized that the reason some character names resonate with me is not because they are popular names, it’s because they are unusual names. The kind of names I don’t hear everyday.
Finding unusual names that fit a character perfectly is never easy, but these three tricks have helped me uncover some fantastic names. Names that work with my story and not against it, and I think they can help other writers.
#1 – Use Juxtaposition:
There are times when using names that clash works best. Juxtaposition can reinforce underlying story themes and create subliminal messages without being too obvious. I don’t know for sure what these famous authors had in mind as they named these characters, but it seems like juxtaposition was a factor.
Take the names Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. The use of homophones in the name Sherlock Holmes invokes a feeling of security. It’s encoded with a slew of comforting messages, who wouldn’t want (and place their trust in) a surely locked home? Whereas the name Moriarty is too reminiscent of the word mortality and produces a feeling of unease and danger. It’s also notable that many of the first names in the Sherlock Holmes books are generic names for the Victorian era (John, Mary, Irene) elevating the exceptional siblings with their unique names of Mycroft and Sherlock away from the crowd.
It looks like juxtaposition was also intended with the names Katie Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler from GONE WITH THE WIND. O’Hara is likely derived from the surname of an ancient Irish ruling family. While a Butler is a male servant. This juxtaposition echoes the relationship dynamic of the two characters perfectly. Scarlett perceived herself as better of the Rhett, and in many ways viewed him in terms of what he could do to serve her needs.
#2 – Themes Work Great for Collections of Names:
I just finished a project where I used all themed names and I loved it. There is no better example of a major author using themed names than THE HUNGER GAMES. This book used two main themes, nature and Roman history. Most people realize Katniss is the name of a water flower that looks like an arrowhead. But there is also Gale Hawthorne (a hawthorn is another flowering plant) and these best friends have sisters named Primrose and Posy. Katniss and the other rebels battle President Snow. This is also a good use of juxtaposition because snow is a natural enemy of most flowers. Both major and minor character have names taken from organic sources, like Rue (a medicinal herb), Clove (aromatic flower bud used as a cooking spice), and Crane (a long-legged water bird).
The second grouping is the names with Roman history overtones. Examples of these names include: Seneca, Cinna, Cato, Plutarch and Caesar. These names and the bread based names of Peeta and Panem, reinforce the idea that the Hunger Games are modeled on the Roman era Bread and Circuses, a program of using large-scale entertainment to keep the masses docile.
Another bonus of using the theme method is it gives the impression that all the names go together and that helps improves the world building. It clearly worked that way for THE HUNGER GAMES, so it should work for the rest of us.
#3 – Witty Names:
I used to think only certain kinds of books could use witty character names, but I was wrong. Everyone loves an inside book joke. And witty names don’t have to be funny, they can be names with two meanings, or with a hidden meaning.
One of the masters at this form was Ian Fleming. His James Bond books overflow with witty character names like: Tiffany Case, Plenty O’Toole and Auric Goldfinger. In case you didn’t know auric is another word for gold. This doubling of the word helps denote just how much this character loved the shiny stuff. Fleming also created the lively moniker of Caractacus Potts (a crackpot inventor) for his children’s book CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. However, many of the movie’s witty names owe their life to another character naming giant, the author Roald Dahl. Dahl wrote the screenplay for CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG with Ken Hughes and those two writers gave us a sugar heiress named Truly Scrumptious and an overly explosive prone dictator named Barron Bomburst. I’m sure Fleming would have approved.
It’s fun running a Google search on a character’s name and having it turn up a root meaning worthy of a giggle. Who can forget Dahl’s Veruca Salt from CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY? However, few readers might know her first name was adapted from a form of wart. And warty she was. The same book also gave us Arthur Slugworth (a slimy spy), and Mike Teavee (a kid who lived for watching TV).
These three tricks have drastically changed how I name my characters. I will never use a baby name list again. I hope one of these ideas will also help you find some great new character names. Please share your tips for naming characters in the comments.
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