The Importance of Names

Have you ever been writing and needed a name? And you couldn’t write any more until you’d thought of the perfect one? Rejecting and brainstorming ideas for minutes to … the next day.

Why is that? Why won’t any name do? Or why can’t you just put in a blank or an ‘X’ and call it go for now?

At least I can’t. I’ve tried. But until that needed name clicks, I really have a hard time writing. As if the name somehow defined the character. Which, actually, it does. Why else would some writers go back and change a character’s name when they discover a better one? Heck, I even have a character who changes her own name as a mark to leaving the past version of herself behind.

Names define who we are as people and, even more so, who are characters are.

Character names are important. This fellow doesn't look like a David!In a novel, a name is often the first impression a reader has of a character. With only text, a reader cannot experience the character through any other means than by what we, the author, tells them. Does the character stumble into a story, saunter in with sword drawn, or sneak in like a thief? No matter what the first line of text mentioning the character is, the name and how we refer to her throughout the book is what will trigger a cascade in associated attributes for the reader.

So it has to be a good name. The perfect name.

Is it Elysium, the princess, or Dimitri, the plotter? What do the names Abrymium, Kortax, and Rhodea conjure for you? A scholar, a warrior, and a well experienced shop keeper? Can you tell me their gender?

All that, from a name…

As a fantasy writer, I spend a lot of time world building. But it took me a while to really stand back and fathom the impact names have on a character or even a town. Instinctively, I knew they had to be good names. But what defines good?

A well chosen name will:

  • Hint at a character’s status (poor, wealthy, educated)
  • Signify gender
  • Fit the character’s trade (warrior, mage, scholar)
  • Signify the character’s race (elf, troll, human, dragon)
  • Touch on character’s attitude (shy, domineering, conniving)
  • May even hint at good or evil

.

So yeah, no pressure choosing a character name! Because it gets even more complicated than that.

What if the character is lying? Could he be pretending to be something else? Or perhaps be the heir to the kingdom with a name to match, while being the worst possible choice as if a cosmic joke?

Well doesn’t that just muddy the naming waters?

I’ve come to love the psychology of writing. The impact of using, or not using, a single word and how that contributes to a reader’s perception of the story, character, and plot. I could write so many blog posts on this (and have!) but you know what works better? Video!

I’m building a webinar to delve into the importance of names because there is no better place to start. A reader’s perception of your character and world begins with a single name. So let’s pull that apart and look at it more in-depth and then figure out how to control that interaction and take it where you want to go.

I don’t have a signup yet as I’m still mucking about in Canada with nary a wifi hotspot in sight (though I will post the webinar here when it is recorded). But if you are interested in getting on the webinar, let me know in the comments below (and make sure you fill your email into the appropriate spot so I know how to get in contact with you). I’ll let you know when the webinar is scheduled or how to find the reply!

And speaking of comments what is your favorite character name and why? I’d love to hear!


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Written by: Autumn

Autumn (also known as Weifarer) is an indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently on the road in North America in a Four Wheel Camper along with her husband, Adam, and Cairn terrier, Ayashe.

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5 Comments

  1. Jan Hawke

    Hmmm – I’m approaching a slack time in my schedule after the end of the month… I’m in as we had so much fun last time! 😉
    My favourite character name? A very tough one, but I think overall I’m going right back to the start of my fantasy genre obsession and will choose Puddleglum, the Marshwiggle in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair – it was exactly right on the nail! 😀

    • Weifarer

      That is quite the descriptive name! Lol. I don’t think I’ve read that one.

      Great! I’ll let you know when it is, Jan! 😀

  2. VeeRay

    Names come to me,,, sometimes before the first word, and sometimes after the last line. I have often just called my MC ‘George’ so that I could reference him in the story, (before you ask, it’s Georgina) but the ‘final name’, always has to fit. There have been times when the name changed the story, but never an instance of the Story changing the name. Somehow the name completes the thought. On one occasion, I had been using a name, for a very long time, when suddenly it acquired a deeper meaning, and the story just ran away from me. I found myself with an entire new scene, and plot line. (I acquire plot lines like a stray dog acquires fleas. ) I applaud you for your posts which so clearly outline the need for names, and a culture, in any work. Authors who try to use something created ‘just in the areas of the plot’, quickly find that the plot spreads over the whole land, and things you never intended to deal with, suddenly become important. When I first began writing stories, I was astounded at the amount of information I needed, even though the readers never saw it. I never imagined that I’d need to know the why of a situation, irrespective of the plot of the story. You just can’t interweave a plot in a ‘partial’ world. Thanks for the post, Autumn, it reminds of something I learned long ago, but now has become so automatic that I’ve almost forgotten how important it is.

  3. clayfoot2

    Some of my characters “arrive” fully-fledged with their names. Sophie, Bruce, and Poppa Tom were like that. Kazimir didn’t have a last name until later, but when I was researching Russian surnames, I was a little surprised how well the meaning of Kazimir fit the character. Oa’phrok (pronounced wah-frawk) was a little tougher because I was delving into Vietnamese names for the region of the sf world he was from. From another story, the character name D’haran reflects regional naming practices regarding birth order (first born children never have shortened names).

    Other characters require more thought and research. The character names for spiders in a story series are derived from their taxonomic names, hence the main spider in the stories is Arctos, from Arctosa, a genus of the wolf spiders. Their civilization is complex, but because they’re giant spiders, I didn’t want them compared to Tolkien’s Shelob or Ungoliant.

    Sometimes a sense of humor helps. Ka-Pow was so named because (according to another character) his caretaker let him watch too many action cartoons when he was a hatchling (he’s a turtle dragon).

    Because several of my stories involve ships of one kind or other, I pay close attention to their names, too. In a way, they are characters unto themselves — similarly, settings can be considered “characters” in that a setting can have a unique “personality” — so the courier ship Minstrel fits a ship rigged with a deck harp. Mind The Trees is an airship captained by a character who is more than a little reckless. Tuscan Red is an inside joke — when I sketched the ship, I grabbed the first pencil close to hand, a brownish-red colored pencil.

    I think, though, my favorite thus far is Simon. When I started writing the story, he didn’t have a name until he wrote a hold-up note and was told by the teller to fix his spelling, quit crying, and go have some popcorn. His brain runs on all cylinders, all out of timing.

    • Weifarer

      Okay, I’m still laughing at the airship Mind the Trees. That is awesome! 😀

      I think the close I can come to that is a ship called the Water Fox, owned by a pirate-merchant. You definitely have the naming idea down. Hats off to you! Have you ever had a character named something completely inappropriate to their personality? I’ve become fascinated with what happens when Sir Lord Highcastle is actually a fourteen year old stick of a boy that doesn’t have a clue. Not enough to write a story on it though, lol.

      And I’m so happy you wrote a story on giant spiders. They are totally underappreciated in this world, so I’m glad they have a complex civilization (along with awesome names) in yours!

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