I have the hardest time naming my characters. The only thing more difficult for me is coming up with a title for a manuscript. Pure torment. I feel clumsy and awkward as I pound my head against my desk in search of the perfect character name. And why not? Names tell us so much about a character that we’re reading about. The greatest of writers have sculpted the greatest of names. Think Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter books. When I read that name, I think Dracula or dragon, and malice or malformed. As another example—Snape. It sounds like snake, don’t you think? Or consider Ebenezer Scrooge. If someone suggested you have dinner with an Ebenezer Scrooge, I bet you’d think twice before accepting. I would. Yet I wouldn’t hesitate if the name happened to be Stuart Little, even before realizing that he’s a mouse.
When I am trying to come up with a character’s name, I try to channel Charles Dickens, but that doesn’t usually work. So, I try a few other techniques beyond the baby name books and the telephone directories.
I brainstorm and scribble down words that come to mind when I think about one of my characters. Then I mix and match parts of these words to see if something interesting pops up.
I search out names on the Internet. For example, I might do a search for names of famous warriors if my character has a strong and aggressive personality, or names of chefs if he or she loves to cook. By the way, did you know that Draco was the name of a 7th-century Athenian statesman and lawmaker responsible for a code of laws that prescribed death for almost every offence? Something tells me J.K. Rowling knew this. Anyway, you get the idea, but I should add that I will often play with the names I find to make them a little different. Draco isn’t obvious, but Zeus and Thor are.
Year books, the Bible, dictionaries, and encyclopedias can also be great resources for names, but again, sometimes a bit of editing and word play may be required to nail that perfect name. And speaking of word play, why not check out the meanings of mundane names in other languages to add a bit of spice? Did you know, for example, that Antonio Banderas translates to Tony Flag?
What are some of the greatest names that you’ve encountered in stories?
If you are a writer, how do you come up with great names?