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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14 thoughts on “3 Tricks for Character Names”
I find the sports pages in the paper a great place to find character names. For example, I just take the first name from a list of golfers and the last name from a list of baseball players. Or mix and match the other way around. Works great.
Don’t over think things. Just get names that sound pleasing to the ear. If you try to drop too many hints you can jar readers out.
Sherlock Holmes, “a surely locked home” –I never realized that until now! Makes me wonder what other homophones I’ve missed.
I love finding names like this one in books. It’s like the author left me a little gift.
Always enjoy your posts. This one about names was great! That’s something I have a problem with. Another great all-time character namer is J.K.Rowling. Lots of alliteration–Dumbledore, Severus Snape. But really-is there anything that woman doesn’t do wonderfully?
I have a question related to characters that I haven’t seen in your posts. Do you ever develop a character that you just love but can’t seem to think of a story to put her (or him) in?
You hit on great example of a writer who favors unusual names, but almost exclusively with her secondary characters. I suspect the use of a common name for Harry vs. the use of names like Dumbledore, Severus and Nymphadora was strategic. This might have been another trick Rowling used to downgrade Harry’s persona as the Chosen One and helped the reader relate to him.
I don’t have many homeless characters. I can only think of one, but she has the skeleton of a plot attached to her so I’m not sure she counts. Heather has a very different writing style, and I’m going to forward your question to her. She might have more to say on the subject.
Hmmmm, I tend to develop stories starting from a concept instead of character, which means I develop characters for a story instead of the other way around. But there’s no reason you can’t come up with a character and then put them in a story. One way would be to identify your character’s flaw, then you come up with a problem to challenge that flaw, and suddenly you have the bare bones of a story! Another way to approach it would be to brainstorm what would upend your character’s life and make that the story. Hope those ideas help!
Since reading Shakespeare I have loved the art of naming characters. Sometimes they just come to me, but I also have used a search for cemeteries in the setting area if it is real. Not all of my characters have a special name, but some coincide with their character, or just sound a certain way. I always loved the jester, Touchstone, in King Lear. What a fabulous name!
Shakespeare really knew how to name! I found this great site which gives you the meaning behind some of his names. You might want to check it out, it’s interesting stuff. http://www.behindthename.com/namesakes/list/shakespeare/alpha
I always wondered why it was President Snow in The Hunger Games, as opposed to another Roman name.
The one that stumps me is Gale from The Hunger Games. Clearly it’s a thought out name, the use of Hawthorne for the sir name proves that. But the character is not like a gale at all. Not in terms of a strong wind or a laugh. It really leaves me wondering what she had in mind when she picked this name.
What a fun post to read. I always put a lot of thought into naming my characters, giving consideration not only to the time and place where they were born, but to how their parents would have considered naming them. Family names are important in some of my books, also ethnic reflection, and ease on a reader’s tongue/ear.
I haven’t read The Hunger Games – now you’ve intrigued me.
And I seem to have been dropped from following your blog altogether. I realized I hadn’t gotten an email reminder in a long time and went looking. Still trying to figure out what happened.
Thanks, Sharon! I’m glad you liked my post. Just a heads up on The Hunger Games, it is violent, so not to everyone’s reading taste. But the violence is done in a way that fits the plot and it’s not just for shock factor. Let me know how you like it.
You are fine, we still have you subscribed. Unfortunately our blog software, Jetpack, is malfunctioning. We thought the issue was fixed with the last update, but my post also didn’t email. Technology can be so frustrating.