What’s In a Name? Everything.

…or sometimes nothing.

A few blogs I follow have posted on naming characters recently, and I keep wanting to comment, but I don’t think I should write an essay under some poor, unsuspecting person’s post. I’ve been meaning to break this topic out for a while (really- it’s on my list between “Look, MOAR NEW NOTEBOOK!” and “My cats, let me show you them”). Now seems like as good a time as any to share my experiences and a few thoughts on where to find the perfect name.

I’ll tell you right now: I suck at naming things. I don’t care whether it’s a character, a kid, a cat or a fictional country, I’m terrible at it. If I didn’t have my husband around to help, my kids would be named “Pending” and “Give me another minute to think.” I’m indecisive, and the more important the name is to me, the harder it gets; therefore it was easy to name my goldfish I had in college (Fluffy and Spike, may they float in peace), but it’s really hard for me to name fictional characters….Or to leave their names alone once I’ve picked them.

If I’d written this post two weeks ago, I would have told you that there’s only one significant character in Bound who hasn’t had a name change. I can’t say that anymore; now it’s all of them. Seems none of my beta readers were familiar with a YA series in which two protagonists are named Cassia and Kai… which are the names of a brother and sister in my books.

Huh.

Well, Kai’s keeping his name, so I guess Cassia’s getting a slight identity alteration. Bugger.

It’s not like it’s the first time it’s happened; like I said, they’ve all changed. I’d have loved to name my female main character after my favourite girl in my favourite book, but you can’t let someone in a story with magic go around with the name Abra (bonus points if you now know what my favourite book is). Abra… Cadabra. Not so much. I tried so many names on her, and absolutely nothing worked. It was enough to make me cry. I don’t want to give away the reason I finally settled on Rowan, but she is named after a tree (shrub?), and it suits her character. Good enough.

Aren was worse- he doesn’t make anything easy. Never has. Some of my friends were kind enough to let me bounce name ideas off of them, but nothing ever seemed to fit (and these sessions generally devolved into a laugh-fest of ridiculous suggestions, anyway). He had different names in two drafts of the book that were completely wrong; finally I just took out the list of potentials, started picking sounds I liked and smooshed them together in different combinations until something sounded right.

It’s a highly technical process, I won’t go into details.

Strange thing was, when I plugged my mish-mash into a baby names website, it came up as a Scandinavian name that nearly made me spit my drink all over the computer when I read the meaning listed for it. It was perfect, so much so that no one would ever believe that I got the name before the meaning.

That wasn’t the first strange coincidence to smack me in the face while I was writing this one, or the last. It was a really good one, though.

Other names came easier. Once Rowan had her name, her brother Ashe and sister Willow fell into theirs quite naturally; their parents are like that, I guess, with the coordinating names. I’m not judging. My dragon got her sort-of-name from her colour, certain water-dwelling folk drifted naturally toward aqua-centric names. Others were more difficult; bad guys need bad guy names, countries need… country names.

At least animals were easy.

So where did I find all of these fantastic names for my characters?

Everywhere.

Baby names websites are a good resource. Some, like babynames.com, will let you search by meaning, by origin, by gender, by first letter, or any combination of those. Handy, no? Great if you name characters by meaning. I usually don’t, becauseI think it can spoil surprises for readers, but it can work. Also, you learn some interesting things, like the fact that the name “Benjamin” means “Son of my right hand.” Very nice name, but seems like a piss-poor way to conceive a child.

*ahem* Moving on…

Geography: My big bad, Severn, shares his name with a river in the UK. Also a town in Ontario, but I prefer the river. It has an appropriately bloody history, apparently beginning with the drowning of a nymph, and the name is kind of scary. I didn’t learn about the body count until after I’d picked the name, but again, works for me.

Botany: Already covered this, see Rowan’s family (above).

Meaning: Obviously the aforementioned water-dwellers. Also, Rowan’s cousin Felicia. She’s a happy lass… for now. Wait for book 2.

Associations: No offense to anyone with names I’m going to mention here, OK? No hard feelings? Good. But some names just bring certain associations to mind, at least for me. Callum Langley comes from a good family. His father Dorset was just knighted. Can you imagine the same of Englebert Dingleberry and his father, Sheldon? No, neither can I. Sometimes I just picked names that sounded right.

Minor jokes: This one probably won’t survive final edits, but it amuses me greatly for now (small things, etcetera). There’s a guy whose sole purpose in the story is to die. He deserves it, but he doesn’t get a lot of dialogue before it happens. His name’s Mort. I like it, but I suspect it’s too punny for most readers. But hey, if something like that works for your story, I say run with it!

Zoology: I haven’t done it yet, but if a character had animal-like qualities, I’d check out the Latin names for a species to see if there’s anything there.

Mythology: J.K. Rowling uses this brilliantly in the Harry Potter books- now THERE’S someone who can work with names! Remus Lupin… should be obvious exactly what he is based on name alone, but it works. They all do. Best names ever.

Literature: Obviously this didn’t work out so well for me, but why not think over your favourite books and characters? Just be mindful of the associations thing I mentioned above. Naming a character Scarlett will give readers a very different feeling from naming her Martha.

Diseases: No, not really. But come on, admit it: Chlamydia sounds like the name of a Nymph or something, doesn’t it? Damn right it does. This is why it pays to at least check on the meaning of the brilliant name you’ve come up with.

Just keep your eyes open. Write down names you like, even when you’re not working on that aspect of a project. They’ll come in handy some day.

Oh, and one caution that a friend reminded me of during this process: If your reader doesn’t know how to pronounce the name, it’s going to be a distraction. Saorise and Siobhan are gorgeous names; many people will at best completely butcher them in their minds and at worst give up completely.*

Kwar’snix!blarg7f9att is not a gorgeous name, and no one should ever use it. Same principle applies.

Wow, this post is a lot longer than I meant it to be. Clearly I have a lot of issues to work out with this one. I’m traumatized, guys. My final recommendation if you find yourself in my position (ie being a complete moron about names): just pick a frigging name and plug it in there. “Find and replace” works, you can change it later. Yes, names will probably impact how you perceive your characters, but a placeholder name will get you a lot farther in your story than nothing.

So, where do you find names for your cats, characters, children, goldfish, etc?

*I’m not saying to never use these names, or others that aren’t pronounced the way they’re spelled, or that are confusing. But if you can slip in someone learning how to pronounce the name, it’s really helpful (see J.K. Rowling again, using a student from another school to clarify the pronunciation of Hermione’s name in The Goblet of Fire, and Jacqueline Carey using the same trick in Kushiel’s Dart). Very helpful for those of us who hear words in our heads when we’re reading and get frustrated when that trips us up.

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About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with a Mountie, two kids who take turns playing Jeckyll and Hyde, two cats, an intentional boxer and an accidental chihuahua. She's the author of the bestselling Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy). www.katesparkes.com View all posts by Kate Sparkes

9 responses to “What’s In a Name? Everything.

  • Michelle Proulx

    What’s wrong with Kwar’snix!blarg7f9att? Are you saying I shouldn’t name the evil alien commander of the Szghaiwe913xjs that? I think it fits rather well …

  • jessicaminyard

    Naming is so obnoxious. It takes me forever to find the perfect names for my characters. I like to use BehindtheName.com because you can search by meaning, or country of origin, and they have theme categories (like aquatic). There is also a random name generator which is fun to play with.

    One of the perks of writing fantasy is that I can name my character Kwar’snix!blarg7f9att if I want to. 🙂

  • Jae

    I hate complicated names in fantasy, which is why I stick to simpler things like Raxacoricofallapatorius. 😉

    But I seriously do hate hard to pronounce names. Even Kvothe is cutting it for me in Pat Rothfuss’ books. (And he had to explain how to say it too). I keeps it short and some parts familiar. I love finding names with meaning though. That’s usually how my characters end up getting named. Sometimes it can even be an association with someone and their name reminds me of a certain characteristic. I’m an odd duck when it comes to fantasy. I like the world of fantasy, I don’t always love how authors treat it (especially when they go into lengthy explanations of politics).

    Kate, you should just get one of those letter dice and roll a letter, then pick the 5th name that appears in the baby book under that letter or something like that. 😉

  • Michael

    I am also not the best at naming my characters. It may be a little easier for me, though, because even though I do write fantasy it is mostly set in the 21st century. I was working on the book I am currently trying to get published for years before I figured out the main character’s last name. The book I am currently working on in rough draft gave me problems too until I took a tip from Ninja Turtles, only instead of naming them after Renaissance artists I named my main characters (who are siblings) after 18th century authors.

    I also use baby name websites and “place holder” names as well.

  • writerchick

    Hey Kate,
    Thanks for the plug. My, my, you go through so much more than I do to find a flipping name. It’s a wonder we writers get anything done with all our processes, techniques and tricks and tips…But you’ve gotta love it, eh? Plus nothing is quite so sweet as finding that right name – the one that makes you sing as you type.
    Cheers!
    Annie

    • katemsparkes

      You know, when I posted this I kept thinking, “I KNOW I just saw another post on naming characters!” but couldn’t remember where. Sorry for the late linking!

      I know, it’s a lot. I don’t look in all of these places for every character, though, so that’s something. Most of it’s just keeping my eyes open when I run into any of those things and waiting for something to slap me in the face. (Of course, some characters make me go through every one of these at least twice, but you’re right. It is pretty sweet when it works). 🙂

  • writerchick

    I think naming characters and titles are the bane of all writers’ existence. I found my zen spot on naming characters a few years back but I can still go round the bend on titles.

    My go-to place for names are baby name books, phone books and directories. But typically I start with classic names (Michael, James, Adam, Mary, Sarah, Emma) and look at the derivatives for those if I want something a little tweakier. Often it’s the last name that is the weirder or less common of the two for me (Jake Kananack).

    But I never give characters two unusual names (Willow Haufenbroffer) because it makes the characters seem more caricature than real person. Unless you’re writing satire names that are too weird I think confuse readers.

    Anyway…that’s my two cents. Good luck in the name finding saga. Ain’t being a writer, grand? 😉

    Writer Chick

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