The Name Game

One of the biggest hang-ups I have with my writing is coming up with appropriate names for my characters.  Most people think in a combination of words, images, and feelings–and I’m no exception.  I can, and have, come up with stories involving a half-dozen characters or more, referring to them in my head by phrases such as “the tall man” “the brother” and “the neighbor”.   Which is fine–In my head, but when I try to put the words down, it just doesn’t seem to cut it.

Names can make or break a character. For instance, I recently found an indie film called Ink* on Hulu. I enjoyed the story, but the main character is named John Sullivan, and is played by Søren Kelly.

This guy.

He’s a good-looking guy, but I just don’t see him as a “John Sullivan”. And while “Ink” is an indie film made on a shoestring budget, and there are many elements that kicked me out of the story, Søren Kelly playing a man named “John” was the biggest offender in my book.  And that the kid that they hired to play “Young John” looks nothing like Søren.

A name is an excellent way to express a character’s personality and position in a story. For instance, in The Wheel of Time, one of the main antagonists is named “Mordin”. Even if the author, Robert Jordan, didn’t tell you that in The Old Tongue, “Mordin” means death, it’s a name that portrays evil and blackness. No story that contains the phrase “I just met met our new neighbor down the street. His name is ‘Mordin’ and he seems like a nice guy. He breeds pomeranians.” or one similar could ever be taken seriously.

Names take on a life of their own. I dislike vampires. Let me rephrase that. I dislike modern vampires.  A few months ago, I gave myself a challenge to come up with a vampire that I didn’t find repulsive.  I ended up with a vampire named “Steve”, but who didn’t think that was a vampire-y enough name, so he calls himself “Ion”.  Which leaves me with a problem: The only setting that seemed fitting for Steve/Ion is in a mystery story.  I generally don’t read mysteries, and I certainly don’t know how to write them, and I’m not really interested in learning how for the sake of Steve/Ion.  The second part of my problem comes in that I think the concept of a vampire named “Steve” is fantastic enough, that I can’t use that name for any other purpose.

When I was in my writing phase, I bought a book of baby names from a thrift store, and would scour it for the appropriate names for my characters–all the while hiding it from my roommates, because they would have teased me mercilessly if they had found it. Behind the Name remains one of my favorite websites, mostly because I can do a search for names based on meanings, so, for instance, a character I want to be dark and brooding might end up with a name such as “Corbin”.

If ether or my readers out their are also writers, how do you come up with names for your characters?  What system do you use?  How do you know if you’ve found the perfect name?

*If you follow my link to the movie “Ink”, please be aware.  The description that Hulu gives makes this sound like a family-friendly film.  It’s not.  The first three words spoken are the f-bomb, shouted by the main character at the top of his lungs.  This sets a precedence for the language for the rest of the film.  Basically, if you watch “Ink” with the sound off, it’d be rated PG.  If you watch “Ink” with the sound on, it’d be rated R.

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2 responses to “The Name Game”

  1. Malou says :

    I really like your fiction writing. I write, but mostly when I have to for a class. Names are often hard to come up with for me but I often go for very common names. Once when I had to write a piece out of an inaminate object’s point of view. I called her Mimi the Mirror because alliteration often works well in fiction. I started reading Megan McCafferty’s books recently and her main character ‘Jessica Darling’ is the best name for a character I’ve ever come across. All in all, I think in books a name often reflects either a personality or an alter-ego so your Behind the Name website is also one to definitely keep. I hope this helps for you. I started a website 2 days ago and have been looking at some other blogs for inspiration. Your’s is definitely one of the most inspirational ones I’ve come across so I owe you a thanks. Malou.

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