Naming a character well is utterly essential to creating him or her. You should never just slap a name onto a character simply because that name is the only one that comes to mind. A name can describe family background, age, historical era, and personality. As an example, let’s take a character: a rough, angry man of 40 who holds a grudge.
How would I find an appropriate name for this characters? Resources, research, and intuition.
Every era has its own set of “Most Popular Names,” so a good starting point is to look at names popular in the decade in which your character was born. For popular name lists, I like Babycenter.com — you can find lists hundreds-deep of the top names for both boys and girls for every year going back to 1800. Though of course a person can have a name considered low in popularity in the year he or she was born, knowing if your character’s name fits the era is crucial. These days, of course, you can name a baby whatever you like, but in times past, people were not always so non-conformist. You would never, for example, name a child born in the Puritan era Delilah –- unless you plan to make her an outsider!
Take the character I suggested at the beginning of this article. Top names for boy babies born in 1975 include Clint, Aaron, Michael, Carl, Donald, and Frank. Scan the list for names that jump out at you – it is often simply a matter of intuition. Does a certain name suggest one of your character’s traits to you? Do you associate it with your character? Will others associate it with your character as well?
Personally, I associate one-syllable, “hard” –sounding names with characters who are rough and angry. So for this character, I might pick a name such as Frank, Carl, or Clint.
I don’t stop there – the next thing I do is check out the meaning of the name. For this, I use the excellent The Name Book, by Pierre Le Rouzic. (Note that another Name Book, by Dorothy Astoria, exists – I have no experience with this one.) The Name Book is not organized in typical baby-name book fashion, as an alphabetical dictionary. Instead, it contains two massive lists, one of boys’ names and one of girls’ names. Each name belongs with a certain “group,” each with what Le Rouzic calls a “pilot name.” These groups of names are organized according to the personality type that they describe.
Now, Le Rouzic’s system may or may not be accurate, but I do find it helpful for really fitting a name to a character, finding an alternate name that I had not thought of -– and even thinking up additional character traits to round my character out.
For example, let’s say I decide on the name Frank for my character. Looking up the name Frank, I see that the name can describe a person with a great temper and inner conflict. Additionally, however, I see that the name is associated with an intuitive, analytical mind, as well as with superior stamina. This does describe my idea of my character, and it also gives me additional ideas for rounding him out. What if he embarks on revenge – will his superior stamina hold out? Did he intuit the occasion that resulted in his grudge, or did he analyze the situation?
In choosing the name Frank, I made use first of all of resources. I intuitively picked a name that seemed right, and then I researched my choices to see if they fit. Of course, the most important factor here really is intuition. For that, you are your most important resource.