The sci-fi novel I’m currently working on is coming along slowly but steadily. I’m planning to write a full update on those goals later on this spring, but for now I wanted to talk about picking character names.
I find it fairly easy to describe little things like what characters eat for dinner or how they’d react to a beautiful sunset if such a scene were somehow relevant to the storyline.
Picking names for them, though, is tough.
I can’t tell you all how many hours I’ve spent combing through sites that suggest names for human babies, pets, and/or Dungeons and Dragons characters in order to get as many different possibilities as I can. Google is probably thoroughly confused about what on Earth is going on in my household by now!
Names have all sorts of associations with them in general, from the naming fashions of certain decades or centuries to personal experiences a writer or reader may have had with someone who had a specific name.
If I read a blurb about contemporary characters with vintage names that fell out of fashion a century ago, I’d generally expect their story to be set in an era when those names were more common or for the plot to give hints about why these characters were given such old-fashioned names.
A few years ago, I noticed a surge in young adult novels that gave their protagonists names that are very rare for contemporary teenagers. The plots themselves were well done, but I found myself getting so caught off-guard by teenagers who had names that I’d previously only seen on gravestones or room tags in nursing homes.
With that being said, I have an older relative who was given an old-fashioned name they didn’t like at all when they were young. Skip ahead a few generations, and that name became wildly popular once again. So the fashionability of a name definitely can change.
Talking about naming trends doesn’t even begin to take account for all of the positive and negative associations we’ve all formed based on our experiences with people who had or who have certain names. (No, I don’t have any strong opinions about the name Wilbur. I simply liked this stock photo).
When I was a freshman in high school, my district hired a new music teacher whose only previous experience with someone called Lydia had not been a positive one. She didn’t go into detail, but she eventually mentioned something about her opinion of this name improving quite a bit based on her good experiences with me as a student.
There are a handful of names I’ve formed unpleasant relationships with due to past experiences I’ve had with people who had them. I’ve steered away from using them in any of my stories, and I think that trend is going to continue for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, I’ve met some people who are so lovely that I’m eager to use their names in stories when possible. I still don’t know what the etiquette of this is, but I’ve found myself asking a person or two for permission before using their names even though the characters I’m creating otherwise have little or nothing in common with them.
But Does It Fit the Character?
Even after all of this research, you still have to figure out if a specific name actually fits the character it was intended for.
One of the wonderful things about creating characters is how unpredictable they can be. I’ve had some characters who lean into their names right away and others who don’t quite fit the first half-dozen names I test out on them.
If you’re not a writer, know that these kinds of experiences are common. Just because a writer comes up with a character doesn’t mean that we have control over how that character behaves!
A few times a week I see updates from fellow writers who were surprised by what their creations do. It’s quite common and can be pretty funny in retrospect if you have a good sense of humour about it.
If you’ve ever had to name a character, what have your experiences been?