Choosing the Perfect Name
by Denise Felt 2011
To me as a writer, the hardest part of any story is finding the right name for my characters. Fanfiction writers don’t run into this problem all the time, since usually we’re working with a set of established characters from the start. But whether you’re constantly bringing in a new leading lady for your male lead (or vice versa) or you’re thinking of adding a new and intriguing character to the crew of your chosen fandom, finding the perfect name for that character can be quite a pain in the neck.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be.
First of all, take into account what you want the new guy’s/gal’s name to mean. Name meanings say a lot about a person, whether they’re from the real world or your imagination. Face it, we’ve all noticed how people tend to act up to their names. Somehow, most Bobs seem the same, as do most Susans or Chloes. You want to pick a name that does justice to your character. A good baby name book or internet site such as www.behindthename.com
are great places to begin your search. It’s really a good idea to have at least some idea what your character’s name means before you set it in stone in your story. After all, the last thing you want is for some well-meaning fan to tell you later that the sexy female who enticed your leading man into all kinds of problems and delights has a name that actually means ‘pig’ or ‘cow.’
In my story “Zugzwang” the new character’s name is very important, mostly because she doesn’t remember it. She has amnesia. For her, I wanted a name that meant something lovely but had a very different-sounding diminutive. Patricia – which means “noble” – worked perfectly. “I know this is difficult for you, Trisha, but I also know that you can do it. I suppose I should tell you that . . .”
“What did you say?” she interrupted breathlessly.
He turned and met her widened eyes. “I was explaining . . .”
“You called me Trisha.”
“Well – yes. You see, as I was trying to explain, you used to work for me. I’m afraid that I’m used to calling you that.”
She smiled beautifully at him. “That’s my name. It’s Trisha. I knew I’d know it when I heard it! I knew it!”
“Oh.” He wanted to kick himself for not realizing sooner. “I’m so sorry. I knew that you preferred to be called Trisha, but it never occurred to me why you didn’t respond to your full name.”
The second area you need to consider is the setting of your story. If your characters are thrown back into the 1600's, you really don’t want to have your townspeople having such names as Zip, Corky, or Moon Unit. They’d do much better with Geoffrey or Reginald. Likewise, if your story takes place far into the future or on another planet, it’s best not to name anyone Bob. Or Joe, for that matter. That is, unless you’re going for comic relief. You’ll want to choose a name that fits well into place.
Another thing to think about is how appropriate your new name is to the setting. If you’ve got a dedicated new lady scientist coming in to show the crew how to get their whatsit to do whatever, you don’t want to name her Candy or Pussy unless you’re writing a James Bond flick. Likewise, a tavern wench probably wouldn’t be named Victoria or Francesca.
Speaking of tavern wenches, in a recent story of mine called “UFO: A Fairy Tale” there’s a scene at a dockside tavern where two barmaids are talking: The Ne’er Do Well was a tavern near the docks, its wooden exterior faded over the decades into a blurry grey. When one of the waitresses at the bar got a look at the man who had just entered the noisy, smoky pub, she said to her fellow worker, “Coo! Look at that! I’d be pleased to handle that one, I would.”
The other waitress, who was also waiting for the bartender to fill her drink order, turned tired eyes to survey the newcomer. Tailored suit, expensive watch, buffed shoes – oh, yeah. This one would be worth her smiles. “Not if I get to him first, Syl,” she told her friend.
I only named one of the barmaids, since both were incidental characters and played a very small role in the overall scene, but I made sure that the one name I did use fit into its setting and was appropriate to the people involved.
Another thing to take into account when choosing a name for your new character is how usable that name will be for your story. Some names, like Xyrgtartus or Morassagee, are probably not going to work unless you come up with a fun diminutive for your regular characters to use when they address them. In the aforementioned “UFO: A Fairy Tale,” the fairy in the story has a very long name: Arianythra. But she never asks Straker to call her by that name. Instead, she tells him that he may call her Nyt. Providing a diminutive for those longer, difficult-to-pronounce names will make your story believable while still giving your readers a glimpse into the otherworldliness of the character.
I realize that it seems as though you’re required to spend a lot of time figuring out the perfect name for your character. But once you understand these key points, it becomes almost second nature for you to go through the process of deciding what name choice fits all your criteria: meaning, setting, and usability. The rest is fairly easy and deals with how to find the perfect name.
Many famous writers confess that their favorite place to find a new name is the phone book. No kidding. This tried and true method has worked for decades. However, there is another place writers have gone to as well. And that’s old parish records or genealogy books. Reading the names on tombstones has also been the favorite pastime of many a writer – whether they’ll admit it or not.
But today’s budding authors have additional assistance. We can go to the internet. Googling first names or surnames will bring up a whole slew of websites to peruse, including www.behindthename.com
, which is one of my favorites because of its cross-referencing capabilities. Another place I like to go is the Google translator, where I can put in the meaning I want a name to have and then check it out in any language I choose until I find one I like. For “Gar Barusch,” I wanted my female psychiatrist to have a name that suited her profession, so I put in the word ‘healer.’ I found a wonderful translation in Estonian: tervendaja. This name worked perfectly for me after I took it apart and switched it around. Dr. Daja Terven made a wonderfully compassionate counterpart to my wounded hero.
Another way to find a great name is to make your new character a tribute to a real person. I have done this several times, since many of my friends enjoy my fanfic and encourage me to continue writing. This is manna to any writer, so I occasionally write a story just for them. “Time for Anny” was written for a fan of my stories named Anny. And “The Catalyst” was written for a fellow fanfic writer and friend, Pam, who gets to play a very interesting role in the story.
Sometimes family history plays a part in naming. In the “Devilsgate Saga,” my female lead is named Louise after another fanfic author. I even kept her last name the same! But I did more than that. The manor where Straker finds himself in the story is called Claringbold Hall, so named for one of her family’s ancestors. In my story “Beyond Repair,” most of the characters are named after extended family and friends who I have loved and who are now passed away. The main character, although I changed his name to the friendlier ‘George,’ is actually my father, whose name was Gerald. Amelia, a fellow fanfic writer, used the name ‘Right Reverend Stanley Mitchell Brisby’ in one of her stories. She chose the Brisby name because she liked “The Secret of NIMH.” But she chose Mitchell because it was her late grandfather's middle name.
The final way to find a name for your new character is to simply make one up. But if you do this, try to find out before you use it whether there are any bad connotations to the name. In my story “Gar Barusch,” I needed a name that I could use that I would later explain as a character from a folktale. I wanted the name to be exotic and unusual, but still rather ordinary-sounding. ‘Gar’ worked well there, since it’s the name for a common type of fish. However, according to some literary dictionaries, ‘Gar’ also means an extremely masculine character, one who makes the ladies swoon. Since I didn’t know this beforehand, I’m very grateful that it didn’t mean something truly awful!
Choosing the perfect name for your characters doesn’t have to be a horrific task. Taking into account a few key points when you are deciding will make your final choice much easier for you. And utilizing the many avenues available to you when looking for a name will also greatly shorten your search. Finally, I would say that as long as you think of your research time as a sort of adventure, then you won’t ever find yourself hating the task of naming your characters again. Good hunting!