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What to name your characters: Editor's Notes #389
April 19, 2023

His name tasted of fire and wings, of curling smoke, of subtlety and strength and the rasping whisper of scales.
—Naomi Novik

In this issue:

1. What to name your characters
2. Tickled my funny bone
3. Interesting Web site
4. Writing prompt

1.What to name your characters
Parents world-over usually put a great deal of thought into choosing a name for a baby. (I’m not sure if my dad was pulling my leg, but he didn’t usually do that, so I think this story may be true. Early in the 20th century, a wife, being exhausted after the birth of her thirteenth child, all of whom she had named, insisted that the husband name number thirteen. He stood in the doorway of their log cabin, looking for inspiration, and the son was named Wagonwheel. So the amount of thought may not always be great.) Not every named character in a story needs meticulous planning, but when I think of Dickens’s characters (Uriah Heep tops my Dickens name list), and some other writers who had a knack for using character names to signal characteristics or emotions, I think naming characters is fertile soil for writers. So here, in no particular order, are some considerations when you name your characters.

Except for the rather unusual situation where a person chooses their own name, the name may tell more about the namer than the named. Someone who carries forward a family name by giving it to offspring tells the world what family means to the namer.

When North America was populated by non-native people, dominant cultures named their children traditional names, and those who came from another culture often changed their own names to fit in and named their children to reflect the dominant culture. I see a shift in this trend as ethnic names increasingly appear on school attendance records.

Will the child have a common or uncommon name? What would each choice signal?

Namers sometimes give aspirational names. They choose someone they hope the child will follow.

Religious or fairy tale names often signal spiritual goals or qualities the namers value.

Some namers ponder the origins of names and their meanings. When you choose a name for a character, consider going with the traditional meaning of the name, or going deliberately against the meaning. A Boy Named Sue comes to mind.

If you write about the past, it’s worth a quick check of a site like the one in Interesting Web site below that can show you the history of particular names. Although the name Wendy was around for a long time, it was a surname or a masculine name until J.M. Barrie gave it to a girl in Peter Pan in 1904.

Nicknames have a special place in life and in story-telling, giving insight into what others consider salient about your character without going into long explanations.

Fantasy writers may simply pull syllables out of thin air when naming characters, but those who do some research are more likely to create names that sound authentic. That authenticity is gold when you want to make your reader forget that everything you are writing is made up, so do spend at least some time on naming sites. The one below lists some traits of names from real places. You could use that to create your own rules for creating names in your fantasy land.

I don’t think you need nine months to choose a name for your character, but some thought and a little bit of research might elevate this aspect of story-telling.

2.Tickled my funny bone
Sometimes people are surprised how I’m named after my dad, but, how would I have been named before him?

3. Interesting Web site
Well-organized and well-researched, this is an excellent resource. Be bold and click links on this site to find information you probably never thought you needed.

4. Writing prompt
Choose any name from any source. Try to find its meaning. Write a few paragraphs exemplifying the meaning of the name or going against that meaning. I would love to see what you do with this prompt.

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