I stared at an empty draft page with a blinking cursor for five minutes before I started writing this post. Prepare yourself for a very rambling blog post (and feel free to skim).
First of all, your sources. There are a lot of baby-naming websites online, and while they can give you ideas, they don’t always tend to be accurate–especially if all the entries are from users. The meaning isn’t always super important, but for some names I’ve found a lot of conflicting information. Hence, I tend to stick to two sites that have lots of names, information on the names, and are accurate from what I can tell. The first one, which I use most often, is Behind the Name, and I highly recommend it for any naming situation. The other one is the DMNES, or Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources. The link to the website and blog is here, and the link to the dictionary is here (also accessible from the blog). The DMNES can’t be used for every novel or short story, since it only focuses on medieval Europe, but I’ve still found it super helpful.
When I get plot bunny ideas, usually the story originates from a character or a small scene in my mind. In the case of my current WIP, it was both–I suddenly thought of a young woman returning home to her mother after a long time, and that when she entered the house, they were both overjoyed to see each other and deliberately avoiding the topic that led to the young woman leaving in the first place.
Often the character comes linked with some random name already, that fits perfectly and that are are 90% likely to be stuck with. I don’t like it, because then it’s much harder to choose and stay with something that fits meaning-wise or culture-wise, but it also removes the problem of having an awkwardly nameless protagonist.
My current WIP’s MC is named Amala. When the plot bunny came to me, she was named Amalasuntha, but that name is pretty long. It’s also the name of a very interesting Ostrogoth queen/regent, and I don’t want to obviously (though unintentionally) name a character after a historical person. Since I was going to have her nicknamed Amala anyway, I decided that I would permanently shorten it.
Because of this, I don’t have the issue of naming the protagonist as much, though I do still need to name important side characters and less-important side characters and minor characters and pets and smaller pets, and… yeah.
If you haven’t figured it out already, I enjoy naming things.
Why don’t we go through my naming processes? It’s not for everyone, but it might help a little.
- Brainstorm (on paper, computer, or in my head) important things in their personality and in their backstory.
- Hop over to Behind the Name and use the refined search that lets me choose meaning, origin, gender, etc. and put in some of the information.
- Choose a few names, see if they fit. If one does, great! If not, repeat process, varying everything slightly until I’m satisfied with a fitting name OR tired and not wanting to spend any more hours looking that day.
- Decide what sort of name I want. (What the first letter is, if I want a popular, trendy, rare, unique, common, ethnic, etc. name, if I want it to seem loud or quiet to me to match their personality… anything, pretty much.)
- Spend an hour more than with method #1 zooming about the internet and looking at names. Search until satisfied or giving up for the time being.
I know, I’m not very organized and it wastes a lot of time. I’ll write to a scene with a very minor character who I’ll never see again, and then I’ll accidentally spend the next hour deciding what version of Elizabeth they should be named.
Finding a meaning that fits can help speed up choosing the names of characters, but it can also make you become really picky and stuck on finding the absolutely perfect meaning in a name that has to fit this and that and those requirements. While I get stuck in that rut more often than I like to admit, it also (usually) gets you a pretty good name that sticks to your character.
When names don’t stick to your character it can become a problem–though more common for me is when the name sticks but you can’t use it.
I had two faeries in a previous project, and one was named Elowen. That was all good, and I had no trouble with her. The other one changed names three times, from Bronwen to Fae to something I can’t remember. The first time I changed it was because I worried that it was too similar to Elowen. She became Fae, and I was happy for a brief time, adjusting to the new name and becoming used to it. But then a family member pointed out that Fae sounded and looked a lot like the word faerie, which I somehow hadn’t noticed in my satisfaction over the problem being over. After I noticed that, I couldn’t keep that faerie named Fae, and had to switch it a third time, and get used to it all over again. I think there weren’t any problems with what I changed it to, but I can’t remember the name, so I’m not sure.
It’s much easier to change unimportant characters’ names, but it’s really hard to do it for main characters. You have to find a name that fits them (again), and you have to twist your mind around the alteration and stop calling them by their old name in your head.
Thank you for reading (or skimming) this, and if you need to name a character anytime soon, you should drop by the sites I mentioned and give them a try!