A Question of Names

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When you write fiction, how do you come up with the names of your characters?  As I’ve been reading through my short stories once again I’ve been looking at names.  As I look at the names, that question about naming occasionally comes up.  Why did I choose that particular name and what would happen if I changed it?

First a few little details.  Between the short stories I’ve posted here, including the flash fiction and 100 word “Friday Fictioneers” stories, and the stories I have not posted, there are well over 200 stories that combined to more than 250,000 words.  Of course, if I toss in the two books I’ve written, at about 80,000 words each, we are talking about a lot of names, a huge number of names, perhaps thousands of named characters.  Sometimes it bothers me when I find a repeat, but over all I think I did a pretty good job keeping unique names.

Sometimes I think of a name early on. It just comes to mind.  If the name comes early, the character is defined, at least to a small amount by the name.  Other times it is the opposite.  I will actually think about the name.  Sometimes I want to imply a certain time, location or age.  It’s pretty easy to see that some names were more popular at different times than others.  Some names have always been near the top, but some have a short span of popularity.

I rarely say that my characters are one race or another.  You can read them as just about any race you want.  That being said, sometimes the name matters.  For instance, I had spaceship commander named Maya.  She could, of course, be any race, but in the 5000 words I once mentioned her looking at her dark face in a mirror and suddenly it is obvious that she was named after Maya Angelou and most likely African American.  I’ve also included a handful of Asian characters and gave them names to match, though on at least one occasion I used an “Americanized” first name with an Asian last name.

I think all of us have had enough experience that names have meaning.  When I hear “Scott” I will think certain things based on my experience around people named Scott.  If I use that name, I will most likely put in some of those characteristics.  If I go back and change “Scott” to “Bob” or “Jason” or “Aaron” or “Diego” or “Susan”, the new names might not fit.  The thing is, I can use any of those names as a hero, a villain or just a normal guy/gal, but the name will to some extent help determine his personality, or starting from the other side, the personality will help determine the name.

I can’t say I take a huge amount of time researching every name in every story, but I will say that once I decide on a name, the character’s personality comes to life that much more.

So, how do you determine a name in a piece of fiction?

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10 thoughts on “A Question of Names

  1. Angelica Kidd

    Honestly the names o my characters just come to me as I sit down to write and I don’t too much question it, I try to just work with it. This was a great post though, gave me a lot to think about as far as character names and corresponding personalities go.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Most of the time the characters name themselves, but it is usually very appropriate – my subconscious mind is doing the heavy lifting. Sometimes though, particularly on longer works, I do put some conscious thought into it. I think names can say a lot about the character.

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  2. Pingback: If We Were Having coffee on June 4, 2016 | Trent's World (the Blog)

  3. Corina

    Usually, they just come. I sometimes write the story using He or She instead of a name. Somewhere along the line, names surface and I do a Find/Replace to change the names.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Your subconscious finds a name that fits…. Most of the time I have a name in mind before I start writing it out, though I have done that.

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  4. D. Wallace Peach

    Isn’t it funny how names fit characters and characters “come to life” around their names? As a fantasy writer, I’m often looking for unusual names. I started using a baby-namer, selecting less common names or archaic names. Now I just take a common name and tweak it. Like you, some will come easily, and others take some time to get the right fit. :-)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      A name adds a dimension to the character. A few times I have looked up names and then tweaked them. For instance, I’ve looked at a list of Celtic gods and goddesses, chose the one that fits and tweaked it for a better fit into the story.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      About 80% of the names just pop into my mind, yet when I read the stories the names almost always fit – either i based the character at least a little around the name or I subconsciously chose a name that fit what I was looking for. My subconscious mind does a huge amount of writing while my conscious self takes the credit/blame ;)

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