How do authors, copywriters and screenwriters select names for characters?
Are they swayed by trends or is there more thought, perhaps research, that goes into giving a name to a character?
Hear how real authors name their characters and chime in with names of characters you’ve voiced by commenting on today’s VOX Daily.
The Importance of Names
A name is very important and helps to shape our identity early on. The naming of children is influenced by a number of factors including being named after a relative, how a name sounds, pop culture, religious significance, and in some circles, based upon the meaning of a name.
Many of us have been in a position to give names, whether it be to our children, or for those who have them, pets. Bestowing a name upon someone is a huge privilege and responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
When naming fictitious characters, authors also invest a significant amount of time when selecting names that fit a character’s identity and signify their role in the book.
Victoria Grossack, an author based in the US and Switzerland, advises “When you, as the author, name a character, you signal the reader that this character is worth remembering. If a character is not worth remembering, you may prefer to dispense with a name, and simply refer to that character by his or her role in your story. For example, you could call the policeman ‘the policeman,’ or the grocer ‘the grocer,’ or the taxicab driver ‘the taxicab driver.’ After all, in real life, we often interact with people without knowing their names.”
Baby Name Books
Earlier this year, BabyCenter.com released their list of the 100 most popular baby names of 2011.
Top 10 Girls Names For 2011
Top 10 Boys Names For 2011
The popularity of names can be cyclical. Many of the names on these lists were popular one hundred years ago, and as you’ve likely noted, some never go out of style.
Author Midge Raymond relies on baby name books as a source for picking the right names for her characters as well as baby-name websites such as the Baby Name Wizard and the Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Names page.
The latter lists names by popularity. If Midge needs to find a name for a 90-year-old female character, she can peruse the top 500 most popular girls’ baby names for 1922. Midge also keeps the character’s ancestry in mind and picks names based on what his/her parents might have wanted to pass down, whether an Irish family name or a Biblical name. All this being said, Midge relates, “But for me, a character’s personality is most important — a name must look and feel, to a reader, as if it fits that character perfectly.”
D. Dina Friedman researches time periods and places when finding names for her characters. She writes, “In my historical YA novel about the Holocaust, Escaping Into the Night, it was important for me to find names that were appropriate for the time and place, but also relatively easy to pronounce and ultimately to relate to. I settled on the name Halina for my main character which has its derivations in Polish and is not a particularly religious or Biblical name, as this character is not religious. Then I chose Batya and Reuven for my secondary characters, also easy to pronounce, though not names you would necessarily hear too much on the street in this day and age.”
Names With Subtle Clues
L.D.C. Fitzgerald authored a book that involves the ability for characters to travel through time and attempt to change the course of history. A number of his characters were given names that provide insight regarding their personalities. One of the characters in the book is a forthright man who questions whether time-travel is possible. This character was given the name “Frank Thomas” to, as Fitzgerald reveals, “indicate a frankly speaking, doubting Thomas. Another member of the squad is a man who believes himself to be morally superior, and best suited to choosing right from wrong. Since this is an archetype that any of us can identify with, I gave him a common first name, Sam. Coupling that with his role as the self-appointed moralist, his name became ‘Sam Morales.'”
Author Elle Beauregard did something similar when naming her protagonist. “…The main character of The Shift Series…Leah is outgoing, thoughtful, intelligent and emotional. I knew those things about her before I’d ever written a word of her story. I also knew she was a shape-shifter, capable of changing her appearance to look like anyone around her. So, when the name Leah came to me, I liked the way the word felt unfinished–it’s full of soft, pliable sounds, and comes to a breathy end. That, for me, felt right–when the reader meets Leah, she is unfinished; she’s about to turn 17, and about to discover something amazing about herself. It isn’t until later in the series, when this new-found identity begins to define her and she is forced to take on other names, that she clings most tightly to her true name and feels the most at home in her skin.”
Finding Common Ground
When you are trying to appeal to a general audience, and children in particular, sometimes it’s about finding some common ground and making the book more accessible across the board. Author D.G. Bahtuoh shares, “For me, naming a character isn’t a difficult task, but I generally stay away from cookie cutter ‘popular names’ list. The name does have to fit with the personality of the character, however. My book titled, ‘Nap-Nap, Quack-Quack’ is written beautifully, my daughter (5 months) at the time was my muse. For the main character, I wanted to blend classic with the current, and cross all cultural boundaries, so I went with a baby duck character named Maggie.”
You might find it a fun exercise to take a look at the names in the books you’re narrating or characters you are voicing to see where they fit in and if you can tie them to a particular niche. Do the names fit under the categories of:
- What’s old is new again
- Celebrity names
- Biblical Names
- Period (Time) Names
- National / Ethnic names
- Names in terms where one lives / setting (Geography)
- Trendy names
What Are Names Of Characters You’ve Voiced?
Be sure to comment and let me know!