Updated: Oct 18, 2020
Anyone with a passion for writing understands the power that words can have. Few words hold as much power as a Name.
When we hear the name Katniss Everdeen, or Bilbo Baggins, our minds are not filled with just a character; we relive their entire story. Character craft is an art, and the names you choose make the difference between a engaging, seamless manuscript, and a confusing jumble of incoherent chapters.
"Romeo & Karen" just does not have the same ring to it. Some times a rose by another name doesn't smell so sweet.
Here are my four best tips for naming engaging characters.
1. Choose a Theme
You've no doubt spent hours lost in the joy that is world building. What are the overarching themes for your world? Are there historical events, religions, and beliefs that have shaped society? Anything significant enough to define the culture of a world would bleed into the names of the people that live in that world.
To put this into prospective, countries that have been heavily impacted by Christianity have large populations of people named "Mary" or "Paul", while areas of the world more heavily impacted by Islam see "Mohammad" as a common name.
The same is true for your world. Writing a story where the world is impacted by nature? Possibilities like "Lilly" or "Bella" or "River" would fit into the theme. In the book I am currently writing, the people have a long history of worshiping Birds, so I have names like 'Gander', 'Wren', and 'Robin'. Be creative to avoid clichés, but finding names that tie into a central event or theme can add continuity to your story.
To bring your character's names to the next level consider using multiple themes or impactful events. Layering themes will bring a level of realism and complexity to your Fantasy novels and make the world your reader dives into engaging and consistent.
2. Be Culturally Consistent
As you build your world, and take care to identify themes in your naming conventions, stick to them.
While you may give more leeway to main characters to make them stand out from the crowd, the name you give them should have logic behind it. You can have a character named ""Stormfeather" in a world full of people named "Beth" and "Larry" but there should be a reason.
Similarly if a character is from a different part of the world with a different culture then the rest, then it would be understandable for them to have a different name tied to their place of origin. When you put in details that categorize your major and minor character's names with origins and logical thought, your world will sharpen to the readers mind.
3. Avoid Similar Names
While the characters in your head are each unique with their own appearance and identity, your reader lacks this prescience . Instead, they rely on your story to fill in the details. If you have one character named Alanna and another named Alarra, it doesn't matter that the last chapter says one has brown hair and one red hair. Your reader will have a difficult time distinguishing who is who.
Make sure to vary your characters name spellings and phenetics to create distinct images in a reader's mind.
Think about the first letter in a character's name. If you have a lot of Ben, Brian, Bella, Bob, you probably need to rethink a few names if you want your readers to follow each character's story clearly.
The same applies to the end of a character's name or similar sounding names. If your characters are all named Laden, Brenden, and Caloden readers may also get confused.
These names are sometimes great placeholders until you can think of something better in draft, but while revising, you will want to make sure that each character stands on their own.
4. Avoid Clichés
If your character is named "Max Power" a reader is likely to roll their eyes or worse, get distracted from your text by imagining a muscle bound gym rat in an Ed Hardy t-shirt.
A cliched name such as "Twilight Dew" for an elf, or "Erik Hammersmith" for a dwarf is not only unoriginal, but when your reader is confronted with the name, they are more likely to be filled with images they associate with the cliché then what your story is trying to show them.
In the same vein, beware of being too on the nose. Your character's name does not need to be a literal description of who they are or the power they have. Let your character be defined by their words and actions, not by their name.
Fantasy authors are some of the most creative people on the planet, so flex that creativity and be original while keeping it simple.
Have other tips? What are some of your favorite character names? Tell me in the comments below!