Wordy Wednesday (“Naming Characters”)

I wasn’t sure what to write about at first for this week’s Wordy Wednesday, because the winning option was Writing Process and I’ve already done quite a few of those posts recently. But then my friend/vlogging partner Hannah brought up a good point while we were binging on Doctor Who this afternoon, and that is that I have a sort of actually detailed process for naming my characters. And I’ve never talked about it before.

So, here we go: How I Name My Characters.

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I hardly ever know what to call my characters. This can be a big problem for me, because I don’t like using placeholder names (basically: sticking some random name like “Billy Bob Joe Jr.” in the story until you find a proper one), because I think names are a big part of how a person is perceived. From the moment a character enters the story, I like to know what they’re called, because it also gives me an idea for how other characters should relate to them–Does a character go by their more formal, complete first name when they could easily have a nickname? Do they like to be called by their last name instead? Or do they have a nickname, but it’s one they aren’t fond of?

Sure, sometimes I’ll have to go back and change a name partway through writing or editing, but in general, once I’ve chosen a name, it sticks.

So, how do I choose names?

Sometimes it’s obvious. In the novel I’m querying right now, Cadence, the protagonist’s name is Olivia Pointe. I knew right off the bat that Olivia would be Olivia–just the moment I started writing, I knew she was an Olivia like I knew what her voice sounded like and what kind of person she was. On the other hand, I didn’t know what her last name should be, so that turned into a bit of a scavenger hunt, trying to figure it out.

The first thing I did was take into account the genre of the novel I was writing. Cadence has a focus on espionage, so I looked at the last names of popular characters from spy movies and books–James Bond, Jason Bourne, Cammie Morgan, Alex Rider, Ethan Hunt, etc. Notice anything they all have in common?

They’re all one or two syllables and they have harder, firmer sounds to them. And with the exception of Cammie from Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, they all also are common nouns that are sort of symbolic for the characters.

Example, Jason Bourne is “born” in his series, when he’s fished out of the sea without a memory, while “bourne” also means a destination, goal, or boundary–things Jason deals very closely with in his role as an assassin.

So, running with this idea, I decided on “Point,” because it’s a short, easy to say name that also conveys a sort of sharp quality in both its sound and meaning, while also being symbolic because Olivia works as an assassin–sort of like a point man for her organization.

I decided to add the E to the end because it adds a little softness to the appearance, while also changing the meaning (although you wouldn’t notice that change when just saying it out loud). “Pointe” is completely different from “Point”–it’s a form of ballet, probably most commonly known for the pointe shoes dancers wear while performing it. It’s a style of dance that takes a lot of experience and training, and can often be painful and dangerous. It’s something that appears beautiful–weightless and breathtakingly easy–but is actually really, really difficult. Kind of like the life Olivia leads.

So, there you have it: Olivia’s last name is Pointe, something with three different layers of symbolism to it, all wrapped up in one clean syllable. Generally, when I choose last names, that’s my sort of process for it. Sometimes I’ll choose a name based on its ethnic origin, if I want to portray a character’s heritage with it (for example, another character in Cadence has the last name Feldman, which is Jewish), but more commonly, I’ll just focus on the sound and meaning.

On the other hand, the way I choose first names is a lot different. Partly because for pretty much any common first name, I know like ten people with it. And therefore I feel SUPER awkward making the decision to use it. Which sometimes leads to things like what I’m thinking of calling the Hannah Phenomenon, which is basically that I have several close friends named Hannah, and because they luckily all manage to be super forgiving (although I do question one of them on this ๐Ÿ˜‰ ), I always name really terrible characters Hannah. Like in one novel, Hannah was kind of, sort of a boyfriend-stealing slut, and in another she’s a just a seriously big jerk to my MC every chance she gets. Hannahs in my stories are always terrible.

So, sometimes things like the Hannah Phenomenon happen, when I know I can trust the people in my life who share the name with a character not to think that the character is any reflection of what I think of them.

Other times, I’ll purposely choose a smaller, side character’s name based on the fact that I know somebody with that name and I want to honor them by using it. If somebody’s in a story basically as just a cameo role, I’m more likely to name them after a family member or friend.

Other-other times, I’m naming a protagonist or major antagonist, which means that I’m back to looking hard for symbolism, names that make sense within the genre and time period, etc.

Like I said before, Olivia was a name I just went into Cadence knowing. However, that doesn’t mean a certain amount of thought didn’t go into it at some point in time. I’ve used the name Olivia in stories before, which means that I’ve looked up its origin and meaning before, which means that almost accidentally I managed to name an independent-thinking, underdog of an assassin something that means “elf army,” while also originating from the French/English name “Oliva,” which is connected to the olive tree–a symbol of peace. So Olivia is a name that depicts both fighting and peace, just like Pointe symbolizes both pain and beauty. Olivia Pointe is a name full of contradiction and inner conflict–pretty fitting for her character.

When I don’t know what the first name of a main character will be, I do one of two things: focus my search on names starting with a certain sound (like for Caden, Olivia’s friend, I knew I wanted a name with the hard C sound, so I searched the C section on BabyNames.com–great resource, by the way) or names with a certain symbolism (Oliva’s cover name at the beginning of Cadence is Aurora, which I chose after running a Google search for names that mean “new beginning”).

Once I figure out one thing–either the sound or the meaning–I run through a list of the names that have what I’m looking for, while searching for something that means the other thing as well. (That’s a really awkward and hard to follow sentence, so let me explain it this way: With Caden, I knew I wanted a name with a hard C at the beginning, just because, so I searched BabyNames.com for names that had this. Then I read through them all, picking out names I liked the complete sound of. Then I looked through all of these for what each name meant symbolically, and finally settled on Caden, because it’s of American origin–fitting for a name Caden’s parents would have picked–and means “fighter,” which is something that Caden very much is.)

As you’ve probably figured out at this point, I’m pretty intense about naming my characters. I haven’t always been this way, but then one day back towards the beginning of high school I was on BabyNames.com of all places (I spend far too much time on there) (in my defense, they do have a Tips for Writers page) and I came across this–a list of the names used in Harry Potter and their meanings. And I realized that almost Every. Single. Name. used in the Harry Potter series means something. And that’s such a crazy bonus for the fans willing to look into what each name means and figure out the connection between the characters and their names. It’s like an Easter Egg, right there and obvious on every page of the books, if you’re just willing to take the time to look into it.

So I made the decision, then and there, to make sure the names I gave my characters weren’t just names, but names that meant things. I don’t think there’s a single character in Cadence who I haven’t really sat and thought through the name of. As my critique partners can tell you, I spent over an hour a couple months back spazzing about the fact that I had named somebody Marvin, trying to decide whether or not to leave it that way or to try to find something better (spoiler: I left it that way, at least for now).

And there you have it, my extremely long-winded guide to naming characters! What it all basically comes down to is knowing where and when your character’s from, making sure that the name you give them is something their parents would have given them, and trying to squeeze just a pinch of symbolism in there as well. Because while we can’t all be JK Rowling, we might as well give choosing good character names a shot, right?

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How do you choose your character names? Do you have a specific process, or do you just use the first name that comes to mind? Let me know in the comments. ๐Ÿ™‚

Also: Let me know if you have any ideas for future Writing Process posts! I really enjoy doing these, but I’m not going to be able to keep it up if I don’t know what you want me to talk about. Anything goes, as long as it’s writing and/or publishing related!

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~Julia

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10 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday (“Naming Characters”)

  1. I like it when the names have symbolism. It adds an extra dimension to the story.

    After reading this post, it gave me some ideas that you could use for future posts: (1) How you pick the location for your story. (2) How you pick the time frame/era for your story. (3) How you decide how many main characters to have. (4) For that matter, how you decide on any aspect of your story. (5) How you weave side stories within the main story. (6) What types of side stories work well. (7) How to keep the intensity going in a story (ex. when mysteries or issues get resolved, you have to introduce new ones) (8) How sentence length can affect emotion. Ex. Using shorter sentences during intense action scenes. Using longer, more descriptive sentences for other purposes, etc.

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  2. For short stories and flash fiction, I’ve been looking up names on the Social Security database to ensure they fit in with the time period. I find it’s very helpful as a “hidden timestamp” when I’m trying to give a piece a sense of time.

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  3. Crazy story about naming characters:

    When I was writing Elodie Marsche I just chose her name on the spot, because Elodie is a pretty name and Marsche is supposedly symbolic in the story, but it turns out that the name Elodie means MARSH and I was like DUUUUUDE. Yep. That one kinda freaked me out.

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  4. WOW! I’m in AP Lit right now and we’re doing a bunch of symbolism analysis so it was amazing to hear you talk about the etymology of Olivia’s name!! Haha, I’m much less meticulous, although your post has now inspired me. For first names, I go for something that *sounds* right/matches the personality of the character, then I search for the behindthename meaning just to make sure that it’s somewhat accurate. Then I suck at surnames, so I just try to make sure that it sounds okay with the first…a lot of gut intuition here, and not all of it all that good x.x

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    • To be honest, CADENCE is the first novel where I really put in the effort with thinking through all the names–up until now, I’ve done it more like your method. I think either way works just fine. ๐Ÿ™‚

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