In the Name of a Hero
by Danielle Airola
Your hero is poised to defeat the villain, save the kingdom, complete a quest or maybe he just wants to get through life. Maybe you’ve got your plot organized in an outline or you’re just going to start writing and explore where things go. But in order to flesh out your hero – and whatever other characters he or she encounters – you need to answer this question: what is your character’s name?
While choosing a name for any character can be a challenge, there is no reason to freak out about it. Names help to make a character relatable and human, and are often symbolic or powerful. Picking the right name for any character doesn’t have to be a painful process because there are several different ways to go about finding the perfect name.
Names in Language
When looking at names, it’s important to notice what they mean–names often come from words in language. The Japanese language, for example, has names with some beautiful translations in English: “Sakura” means “cherry blossom,” so it makes a pretty name that isn’t too hard to say. Choose a name that isn’t hard to pronounce, and one you can always remember how to spell. Typos are bound to happen – even I sometimes make the mistake of typing “Sofa” instead of “Sofia.”
If you’re writing fantasy or science-fiction, it can be tempting to create a really elaborate, outlandish name with hyphens or apostrophes. While this can make a name unique, make sure a reader can pronounce it mentally or out loud without tripping over it. If they can pronounce the name, that makes it more fun when they tell you who their favorite characters are – one reader tripped over my character Athenaise (a French name), so he called her Athena.
If you want to choose names from modern (or even ancient) languages, it’s important to understand how that language sounds. This can go down to the level of individual letters. In German, for example, J sounds like Y and E sounds like a, so the name Anje is pronounced like Anya.
If you can’t find, or don’t want to use, an established name from a real language, understanding how languages works can help you construct names. In order to create a name for a character in a short story, I started with the Mongolian name Jochi. However, Jochi is the name of a man in Mongolian history, as well as being the name for one of my other characters, and my short story’s character is female, instead of male. So, I changed the I to an A because an A at the end of a name usually indicates that it is used for females, i.e., Antonio is a boy, but Antonia is a girl. But I didn’t stop at Jocha, because that’s too close to Jochi. I changed the J to an I – I’d been studying Latin that year, and the Latin alphabet uses I and doesn’t include J. This left me with Iocha, and I stuck with that for my character. Playing with names and letters like this can be fun and allow you to create something that fits your character, is unique, but not too challenging for your readers to remember and pronounce.
Another way to create unique names is to combine several words from a language. One of history’s most famous names, Tutankhamun, is actually comprised of three different words. “Tut” means “image,” “ankh” means “life,” and Amun was one of the most powerful gods of ancient Egypt. Together the words give the name the translation “Living image of Amun,” a name appropriate for a king seen as a god. Just like Tutankhamun, a character’s name can have a meaning specifically tied to who they are.
Naming Characters After Other People
This is perfectly acceptable–I have definitely named characters after figures from history, mythology, and even video games. However, it’s a good idea to be cautious if you want to do this. Avoid using big, easily recognizable names. Unless you’re retelling Homer’s epic poem, having a warrior or king or even a ship captain named Odysseus is going to annoy people. It looks lazy and unoriginal. You can also open yourself up to unintentional lawsuits if you use the names of famous people in an unflattering or inflammatory manner, so staying away from those is probably a good idea.
If you have a lot of characters, watch out for names that look and sound the same or even similar. This can lead to confusion among who these individual characters are, especially if they’re related, and the repetition of sound can get annoying. After years of trying to deal with characters named Eric and Derek in the same series, I changed “Derek” to “Richard.” These two guys aren’t related, but the similarity in sound had always bothered me. “Richard” fit that particular character better because it sounds more regal than “Derek,” thus fitting his identity better anyway. However, if you want to group a bunch of people together and don’t necessarily want them to stand out from each other, utilizing consonance and assonance are good ways to accomplish this.
Nicknames, of course, are perfectly acceptable, especially if your character has a long name. However, try not to get carried away – multiple nicknames aren’t necessary. If your character has a nickname or epithet that isn’t a shortened form of their real name, show us how they earned that name if it’s important to the plot.
Your character might have some kind of surname, or be part of a noble family and their name includes “of” wherever this family lives. Or, perhaps your character is born illegitimate like Leonardo da Vinci, and not allowed to use a family name. In his case, “da Vinci” denotes he was born in a town called Vinci. Whatever your character’s situation is, this is an important part of his or her identity and his or her name.
It doesn’t matter if you’re starting with your character’s first or last name. When you’re looking for that other piece of the name, find something that sounds right and fits with whatever other pieces of the character’s name that you already have. Play around with different name combinations until you find something that fits.
Your character’s family might influence what your character’s name looks like. Some families have traditions for naming the next generation, such as passing down the same middle name to each firstborn son in the family’s branches. Some cultures show family relationships through a person’s name, usually using the father’s name. When studying Russia’s Romanov dynasty, it’s nice to be able to distinguish Olga Alexandrovna (daughter of Alexander) from her niece, Olga Nikolovna (daughter of Nicholas).
So perhaps your character’s culture incorporates family relationships, or the family passes down the name of a famous ancestor. Naturally none of this is required in your character’s name, but it can help tie your character’s name to a particular culture if needed.
Names aren’t hard to find – with seven billion people on the planet and thousands of years of history and story-telling, names are everywhere. Add that to the Internet, and you’ve got easy access to various websites and data bases that are stuffed with names. It’s easy to search for the origins and meanings of names on sites like http://www.behindthename.com/, even what names were most popular for babies in past years. Flipping through a yearbook can show you common names, first names and surnames, or show you names that aren’t so common in certain areas of the country.
Since names can be found everywhere, it’s a good idea to keep track of names you like. When you find a name you like, write it down and save it somewhere even if it doesn’t fit any of your current characters. Keep lists of names – you might not use them all, they might not fit a particular character, but a list will give you plenty of names to play with and choose from.
Enjoy the Name
Overall, choose names that you like for your characters. They don’t have to be symbolic, that’s entirely up to you. There’s no reason to give a character a name you don’t like, even if they’re some kind of villain. Sometimes it takes some research or changing letters and playing around with full names, but with a little time and patience, you can find that perfectly fitting name for your character.
Danielle Airola is currently attending college to study anthropology. She self-published her first two novels, Empress’ Outlaw and The Guardian’s Exile, through Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace. She can be found on her Facebook page, Author Danielle Airola.
Here’s a link to that page: Danielle Airola’s Facebook