Naming characters has always been fun for me, and oftentimes I can’t move forward on a story if the names aren’t right. What writer out there didn’t wish they’d come up with Scout Finch, Huckleberry Finn, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Humpbert Humpbert, Pipi Longstockings, Elinor Dashwood, Chili Palmer, Bilbo Baggins, or Victor Frankenstein?
As great as all of these names are, there’s a tendency for some (even great writers to go a little overboard). They try to supersaturate a name with so much meaning that it starts being cute and can eventually become a distraction. For every Mrs. Havisham, Fagin, and Pip, there is also a Mr. Sowerberry, Polly Toodle, and Luke Honeythunder.
I recognize the joy one can have in names like these. It happens in Batman comics (Edward Nigma) and in James Bond movies (Auric Goldfinger, the other terrible name from the same film), but can become a little cloying, and it can turn your work into an episode of My Little Pony. I’ve seen my students let this get the best of them. In workshop they’ll make sure we didn’t miss that a character’s last name is Payne, because you’re supposed to think about how much he’s hurting on the inside. This one is named Constance Lovett, because she’s always there for people, and she really loves being an anchor for the other characters. They’ll have a smart character named Sarah Bellum or have a character named Reed—because, you know—he’s really into books.
I think it’s much more powerful to associate character meaning with the sounds of the names and to a certain extent with the typography of the letterforms of the name. For the most part I still subscribe to the idea that names should be pronounceable, which is a much bigger deal in the world of science fiction and fantasy, where characters are named D’fallorian or B’nithwyn.
My number one recommendation for naming characters in fiction is to differentiate names by sight and sound. One of the most important and obvious aspects of a character name is to differentiate them from other characters. All of the other thematic resonances are okay as long as you design character names that look and sound different from each other. Take a look at this selection of names. They are different from one another in length, number of syllables, accented syllable, and even in the shapes of the letterforms.
From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
- Ebeneezer Scrooge
- Bob Cratchit
- Jacob Marley
From the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling
- Harry Potter
- Hermione Granger
- Ron Weasley
From No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
- Llewelyn Moss
- Ed Tom Bell
- Anton Chigurh
I would say that the only set of names that offers a bit of a problem is Harry and Hermione. There are many parallels between the letters, phonemes, and the “er” rhyme at the end of both names. I’m sure many could make the argument that there should be a parallel between the two of them, and there’s no time here for such a cage match (that’s what the comments are for). My primary point is to illustrate how powerfully you can create space for characters thinking more about word shape and word sound.
Notice the dominant vowel sounds of “ee” and “oo” of Ebeneezer Scrooge, the hard “r” in Jacob Marley. The plainness of Harry Potter, with its pair of double consonants, creates an amazing sense of ordinariness. McCarthy masterfully handles the names in No Country For Old Men, mostly by their appropriateness. Visually it’s easy to separate the names on the page, but more than that the names seem right. Llewelyn is a jumble of letters and sounds, which mirrors the character whose life us upended. Ed Tom Bell, is a string of single syllables, balanced as a string of concrete blocks. This is a great sounding name for a Texas sheriff irrespective of its meaning. Finally, Anton Chigurh is a strange combination of names that lends itself to the important character feature that Chigurh is foreign, but you can’t really tell his point of origin. His first name, Anton, will take some people’s thinking to Anton LaVey, that great American Satanist. It’s just an echo, however. And an echo is often enough.
Of secondary importance in naming is appropriateness or fit. Region, culture, race, era. It’s good to get a sense of how old your characters are and then check how common a name is to that era. Back in the day, phone books were a great tool. But the internet can assist you with names appropriate to given regions. This webtool from the Social Security Administration is a pretty great way to search the top 100 or so names from a given state in a given year. I checked my name, Todd, and discovered in the year of my birth in the state of Washington, that was the 17th most popular name. Michael was the top name.
It’s easy to let the name game get away from you. Focus on sound over meaning, and work on fit for the time and place, and your names will do more work than ones that are pun-soaked and ripe with meaning. Even in fantasy and science fiction, you’re still trying to build a coherent world with internal logic, so the names should support the world building and not just create an opportunity for word play.
Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.