The Importance of Being Ernest Ernie Ernesto Jack

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When I was growing up, I loved reading the dictionary. Not the cheesy large print all-the-big-and-bad-words-removed dictionaries in the classrooms at school, but the old Webster’s dictionary we had at home with its tissue-thin pages that oozed musty old book smell. I’d bounce through the tiny print like I was on a scavenger hunt, each looked-up word always leading to another. But as much as I loved words in general, my favorite part of the book was the section at the back that listed common English names. I re-read this section ad nauseum.

Sparked by this name list, I started “collecting” names. Throughout my pre-teen and teen years, I had a blank book where I kept lists, quotes, clippings and ideas. The first thing in the book was a list of names that I liked.

It didn’t stop there. I still make note of names that intrigue me when I hear them and compile lists of names. In a way, my name obsession fuels my need to write. I have this theory that the names I am most drawn to, the ones I maybe heard or saw once, but can’t forget, belong to potential characters—characters not yet written, but conceived of in some form—and that this is why I noticed the names in the first place. Until I match a character with a name, they rattle around in my head, waiting.

I put substantial thought into naming my characters, probably more than a lot of people put into naming their children. Before I bond a character with a name, I want to know I’ve chosen the right one. I’ll often start a story using only pronouns—he, she or I—until I’m certain that I’ve locked onto the right names for the characters. Taking the time to select the perfect name is worth it. Having to change a name mid-story can shatter your whole concept of the character.

While a single name may be sufficient for characters in a short story, or minor characters in a novel, it’s a good idea to give the main characters in novels full names—First Middle Last—and consider all aspects of that name: birth name, nicknames or diminutives and the name the character prefers to use. If the character is adopted or if they use a pseudonym, there can be further variations. Parts of this name may never be revealed to the reader. What’s important is that you, the writer, know it.

Think of naming a character as the reverse of naming a person. Instead of choosing a name and hoping the person will fit it, you have an image of the character in your mind and now you have to find a name that fits them. But wait. What many people fail to remember when choosing a character name is who chose this name. Unless your character is using a pseudonym, a stage name or has legally changed their name for some reason, their parents will have chosen their name. You need to get inside their parents’ heads and decide what factors would have influenced them when they chose the name. You may decide that the parents would have chosen a name that’s completely unsuitable for the character. That’s okay, it happens. It would be unrealistic if every character had a fabulous birth name. If your character’s birth name conflicts with their personality, they’ll probably go by a nickname or some variation on their name.

When naming characters, realize that most of the common wisdom on naming doesn’t apply. Many parents ignore the advice of experts and choose precisely the names they are counseled to avoid. So instead of trying to sidestep the pitfalls and perils of naming, feel free to throw yourself into them, wholeheartedly.

Background Image: Emily Rose | Tako Fibers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

10 Points to Ponder when Choosing a Character Name:

  1. Do you want your character’s name to be COMMON, TRENDY or UNUSUAL?
    • COMMON names are those that consistently make the most popular name lists, regardless of generation: Michael, Sarah. You might consider a common name if you’re trying to write a story that is “timeless” and don’t want the characters identified with a certain time period. However, a name like John Smith is too ubiquitous, unless you plan on having the name itself be a running joke in the story.
    • TRENDY names are names that are popular for a time. Karen and Susan were extremely popular names for girls born in the 1960s, but these names have disappeared off the popularity radar. Using a trendy name will invoke a certain decade and can be a way of implying your character’s age without actually saying it. If you like the idea of using a trendy name, you’ll need to find out what names were popular for children born in the decade your character was. The flip side of trendy names is that you should avoid using a name that’s indicative of an era other than the one your character was born in, unless there is a special reason for your character having this name. Mildred, which was popular in the early 20th century, would seem out of place on character born in the 1980s. Conversely, it would seem odd for a character in a story about WWI to be named Dakota.
    • UNUSUAL names include the made-up: creating Patriste by combining the names Patrick & Stephanie, the offbeat: September, and the familiar, but uncommon: Rhiannon. Even if you give your character an offbeat name, consider the year they were born and the likelihood of that name being chosen. A character named Rainbow who was born in 1969 is plausible, whereas one born in 1919 is not. Familiar but uncommon names work well for characters. Choose a name that is recognizable enough not to have to be explained, but unique enough that the reader will notice and remember it. By virtue of their low popularity, these names also have the advantage of not being tied to a particular era.
  2. If you do choose a common name, think about the possibility of using an ALTERNATE SPELLING. Consider the difference even a small change such as using Jon instead of John or Mari instead of Mary makes. However, it’s best to avoid spelling names in a way that makes them look misspelled: Kiel, Wakine, Rebacca —unless the peculiar spelling is integral to your story.
  3. Decide whether you want your character to have a UNISEX name: Kim, Tracy, or a GENDER-SPECIFIC name: Felicia, Roger. The femininity/masculinity of the name can have a bearing on how your readers view the character, but remember that it’s possible to modify most names. So even if you’re certain that your character’s mother would have given her a feminine name such as Melissa, you can have her go by Mel if you want her to project a less girly image. Another option is to give the character a gender-specific first name and a neutral middle—then you can choose which one they would use. Consider using last names as firsts and vice versa. A female name used as a last name, particularly with a male character, can be an unusual and interesting twist.
  4. Consider all possible NICKNAMES and DIMINUTIVES of the character’s full name. NICKNAMES include monikers based on physical characteristics or personality: Red, Smiley, pet names: Sweetie, Baby, as well as regular names a person uses in place of their own. In Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller’s character, Gaylord Focker, uses the name Greg. DIMINUTIVES are variations on a given name, which are usually shorter or cuter than the original. Diminutives of James include Jim, Jamie or Jimmy. Nicknames and diminutives can be temporary: a summer camp nickname, or permanent: Deborah might go by Debbie her whole life. They can also change over time: Barbara might be called Barbie as child and Barb as an adult. If you choose a nickname or diminutive for your character, consider who gave it to them, when and why.
  5. Check your character’s INITIALS to make sure they don’t spell out an unflattering word such as BUG or ASS, unless this is a part of your story.
  6. Say your character’s full name out loud. Does the name have a pleasing RHYTHM? Adjacent names that end/begin with the same sound can blur together: Darren Nathaniel. Think about rearranging the names if the combination doesn’t sound right. Think twice about cutesy combinations such as Gary Perry, Candy Kane or Rose Rose. Unless there is a reason for such a choice, the name will be a distraction. If the PRONUNCIATION of your character’s name is difficult: Siobhan (Shi-VAWN) or unusual: Marcia pronounced Mar-SEE-ah, rather than MAR-sha, do you plan to convey the correct pronunciation to your readers and if so, how?
  7. Consider the MEANINGS of the names you’ve chosen for your character. If you’re waffling between a couple names or spellings, what the names mean may help you finalize your decision. A meaning that fits the character always makes you feel confident that you’ve made the right decision. A neutral meaning is fine, but try to avoid names with meanings that clash with the character’s persona, otherwise you may have readers struggling to figure out why you chose Marvin, meaning “lover of the sea”, for a landlocked farmer character.
  8. Consider your character’s family HERITAGE, especially when choosing a surname. Opening up the phone book and choosing a name at random is often suggested as a method for choosing a last name, and it can work, but it’s important to select a name that’s appropriate: if your character is of Chinese descent, don’t name them Rossillini. If you’re trying to be historically accurate, have a look at census data for the region and years in question. Genealogy sites or your own family tree, maps and atlases are all good sources for names. News articles and magazines such as National Geographic are good sources for names from other countries. If you travel, jot down names for future reference. The character’s family background and ethnicity can also play role in deciding what given names to choose. For example, Catholics often choose saints’ names for their children. Consider whether the character’s family is embracing their heritage or trying to shed it, e.g. an immigrant family that is trying to fit in might choose English names for their children, whereas a family that’s rediscovering their roots may choose precisely the names their parents and grandparents avoided.
  9. Is your character a NAMESAKE? If so, who or what are they named after? Are family names de rigueur? Perhaps it’s tradition that the first son is named after the father or that the mother’s maiden name is passed on to the children. Maybe the parents chose the name to honor a friend, a mentor or someone famous they admire. Think about what other sources may have influenced their decision. A botanist might choose botanical names: Linnaea, Salix. A person who’s traveled a lot—or dreams of it—might choose place names: Paris, Milan. A Trekkie might choose names from the ships’ crews: Data, Scotty.
  10. Consider any STEREOTYPES associated with the name you’ve chosen. Realize that anyone named Elvis will be connected to Mr. Presley. This is fine if that’s a part of your story, but if it’s not, perhaps another name would be a better choice. Also, avoid selecting name combinations that are associated with well-known people: Tom Cruise. Unless there is a reason for such a choice, the name will be a distraction—readers will keep wondering why you chose it.

Finally, consider which form of their name the character prefers to use. This is your opportunity to consider the personality of your character, rather than that of their parents. Does your character dislike one or more of their given names and/or nicknames? Is there is conflict between what they prefer to be called and what other people call them? Perhaps Gwendolyn‘s family calls her Wendy despite her repeated requests for them not to. Do they go by different names depending on who they’re with? Robert might be called Bobby by his family, Robert at work and Rob by his friends. If your character is a married woman, does she use her own surname, her husband’s surname or a hyphenated combination?

Try out all the variations of the name you have chosen. A character named Davis Whitby Smith, could be known as D. Whitby Smith, Davis W. Smith, D.W. Smith, Dave Smith, Davey Smith, Whit Smith, Killer Smith, Buddy Smith, etc. Notice how your perception of the character changes depending on which aspect of the name you choose to emphasize. This is the name readers will identify with your character, so take your time and choose the perfect name.

When I chose a name for the main character in my novel, I wanted a first name that was familiar, but not overly common. I’d decided that his name would be his mother’s maiden name, so I wanted a name that would work both as a given and a family name. I settled on Riley, which means “valiant”. For his middle name, I wanted something generic, the kind of name people pick as middle names so often. I also thought it would be good if the name could work as a namesake — something that would’ve been trendy for the time period. Since he was born mid-60s, John works in that respect (Kennedys, Lennon, etc.). His last name proved most difficult. I wanted a name that would sound ethnic without being obviously a particular nationality. I started with Castillou, the name of a street I lived on when I was a kid, played around with that for a while and came up with St. Lucia. Since Lucia is used in a variety of languages and I’d already decided that one of the character’s grandparents had come from the Caribbean, St. Lucia was perfect.

It takes time to choose a name this way, but it’s worth it. In your quest to find the perfect name for your character, you’ll learn a lot about their background: their family, their past and their motivations. You may never reveal all of this information to your readers, but your awareness of it strengthens your story. If you don’t know the reasons behind your character’s name, then you don’t know Jack… er… Ernest.


Character Naming:

Bestselling Naming Books at Amazon:

A Few Name Sites:

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