On Developing Character Names

How exactly a writer names their characters and who the characters are is a process that is personal and almost unique to each writer, however there are some over-simplifications we can state: There are writers who draw from people in their lives, and there are writers who draw from what the story demands.

I know Shakespeare and you are no Shakespeare

I fall into the latter category. I’m not one of those, “you’d better be nice to me or I’ll kill you off in my next book,” types. And I have my own rules for how I name characters.

My characters are very much driven by the demands of the story and what I discover about them as I write it. This doesn’t mean that I don’t see things in my life and things, ‘hey, that’d work well in my story.’ I do, but I don’t model whole characters after whole people, and my characters are largely undefined until needed.For example, in early drafts of the Deacon Carver stories, Char Osbaldistan was a man. I recently discovered that the character works better as a woman (not for some romantic subplot, but to explore a glass-ceiling military scenario). I’m still contemplating renaming her Chard Osbaldistan. The implied “shard” and all that can evoke in the reader appeals to me. You can read about Char(d) here.

I write very slowly, and sometimes life catches up to me, forcing me to make changes to a character. I had a character named Susan in early drafts of Tau Ceti. She met a very gruesome, untimely end. I met and married a Susan (3rd anniversary last week!). Obviously I couldn’t have her name applied to a character who suffered so much. It just wouldn’t feel right. So two changes happened. The fate of Susan was applied to another character (actually making the story stronger, as this was now a loss of a leader) and the name of Susan changed to Sumin – a common Korean girl’s name.

But you can’t let the world dictate your character names. If you could never name a character after someone you’ve met, you’d be very frustrated.

As a teacher who’s taught students from almost every nation (I’m not kidding, I’ve even had students from North Korea. My one gap is central America — basically the countries between Mexico and Venezuela — and the Caribbean) I’ve known too many people with too many names to never use the name of someone I’ve known. So I have a different strategy. I won’t use a name if I’ve only known one person by that name. I’ve known many Jennifers, for example, too many, really (Sorry Jenn, Jen & Jeni*) so that name is fair game, and taught at least two Sumins.

Going through an old draft of a story I’m revamping, I realised that along the way I’ve edited out a character who could be a powerful element in the plot, both foreshadowing the fate fo the main character and giving stakes to the team. The character’s name is Hawke. Which is fine, I don’t know anyone named… shoot … I do, only one. The writer Sam Hawke, author of The City of Lies. (I don’t know her well, she’s a Twitter friend. We joke about accents and pronunciation occasionally.) I’ve rationalised not changing the name three ways: First, the character is a different gender than the author; Second they only share a family name (the character has a rank and is never referred to by first name) and third (and weakest), I don’t actually know the author that well. We’ve never been in the same room.

I also have a precedent. I have a character named Haskins in a novel that might get pulled out of the drawer and rewritten some day. When I wrote it (1990s), I didn’t know anyone by that name. Now I do. I won’t be changing it for the same reasons as above.

Where can writers find names?

Many writers consult baby name lists. That’s fine, but I don’t.

I’ll generally use placeholder names until I have a sense of the character, then I’ll look around for a name that fits. One place that I look for names is International sporting tournaments. Ice Hockey is great for Eastern European names, Cricket is great for Indian and South African names, likewise rugby for Pacific Islander names. Historical videos on YouTube are great for learning names that have fallen out of fashion.

Sometimes you have a specific need. I needed a Peruvian name (not a Spanish-origin name) that had a specific meaning. Googling and following leads beyond that, I eventually found the name. I’m not going to share it or the meaning I was searching for, as the meaning is a plot spoiler for Tau Ceti.

Some final advice on names: Never take a complete name (first and last) and avoid names of the most famous people in a setting (so no Beckham, Ronaldo, or Rooney, please).

Happy hunting!

I refer to Tau Ceti in this story. The novel should be complete and available for purchase by the end of 2021.
I refer to the Deacon Carver stories. They started with the short story ‘Dee, For The Win’ previously on Wattpad, now to be in included in my short story anthology due out in October 2021. The sequence will continue in a series of novellas shortly thereafter.
“Sorry Jenn, Jen & Jeni” I’ve known multiple women with each of these variations (also Jennie and Jenny) so even I don’t know to whom I’m apologizing.