Give a chap a name

Death of the Mid-list

Netgalley anyone?

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Apr 26, 2016
So I'm interested to know how people come up with names for their characters, particularly protagonists, because this is something I really struggle with. Does the name just come to you, do you take it from someone similar, that you know, do you use one of those fun website generators where it comes up with ten thousand shit ones and a single gem that you might possibly use if you correct their appalling lettering? My most recent came from a story my father told me about his friend in the army who kicked a poo on the floor and I've gone 70,000 words wondering if it's really appropriate...

Essentially, where do you get your names?
I have no idea! Ok, that's crazy, but then... never mind! I think it depends on the story, I started by looking for something appropriate, and stumbled on a rare name that was very appropriate. After that, well a little research on the time period, location tends to drive me towards suitable possibilities, and then I pick what I like. Even the story and direct that, as my main character gave birth to a daughter, and the name came from left field unexpectedly when Merlin (the character) actually suggested it. ;)
Ditto. Depends on the story. My first books, I wanted my MC to be an "every man", so I gave him a very unassuming name: Matt Carter. If it's a foreign character, often I'll search through for the gender and nationality, and find one that fits the character I've built. Others, I have scanned through my email for random first names and tried them out to see which ones I like. :)
So I'm interttested to know how people come up with names for their characters, particularly protagonists, because this is something I really struggle
Essentially, where do you get your names?
Me too. As I work with my characters, the names come. But I have learned to check whether they have been used elsewhere. I had a lovely name for an alien leader once, only to learn that it was the name of a pharmaceutical product. I had to change it, which wasn't easy. I think names come from the stew of literary information and experience which writers have simmering very deep down.
A character's name can reflect their nature, and it becomes a mental shortcut for the reader when they're learning who is who in a story. The protagonist of my series of psychological thrillers is a detective called Neil Kettle, which I chose to show indicate his investigative method of seeming unpushy, almost subservient, while drawing suspects out, as well as his tendency to build up a head of steam before exploding! A blundering colleague Frank Best, was too frank for his own good—blabbering things out before thinking what he was saying, and also he thought of himself as better than the rest of his team. Their boss, a sinister veteran detective, Roger Rule was true to his name by screwing everyone over (rogering them) and behaving in an autocratic manner.

If it's not labouring the point within your story, nicknames are pointers to someone's personality. Roger Rule was referred to as 'The Lizard' by his men, a moniker which he knew about and liked as it suited his cold and predatory ways.

Research has shown that a person's name has a great effect on how people treat them, what is expected of them and how successful they are in life. You don't hear of any princesses called Cheryl, for instance. Surnames may be more indicative of a person's hereditary than is recognised. When we humans first took on surnames, they usually told our profession—such as Smith, Fletcher, Wheeler or Baker. A customer might feel confident that a carpenter called Wood knew what he was doing. My own surname Whybrow derives from ancestors in Normandy called Wyber, which means 'mighty castle' in ancient French; presumably, they were part of the Norman invasion of 1066.

The Name Game: how names spell success in life and love

A dentist is mentioned in this article, who has an appropriate name, but when I lived in Portsmouth in the 1980s there was a dentist called Doctor Death!
For the current WIP the names came easily. For one of the main characters I needed a generic name that would fit to his country of origin, but still could function in an international environment. For the other one I chose "Guus", because English-speaking readers will be familiar with it, but the Dutch pronunciation of it is completely different (an close to impossible to mimic by foreigners). That gives some pretext for interactions and even a little comical effect.

It's different with my "beloved child" of speculative fiction that I'm slowly cradling. The characters there have quite fantastic names that are related to their religious/ethnic affiliations. So, female characters connected with the cult of earth/nature are given names of various (more obscure, to not make it clichéd) Mother Goddesses: Hannaha, Shaushka etc. Ironically the name of the main character gives me a headache. I have one, that I thought of a long time ago, but now I find it too silly. For now she is just MM ;)
It's vital to differentiate between characters by giving them names that 'lock' onto them alone. I made a mistake with an early draft of my first novel by having not only a protagonist called Roger Rule, but also two minor characters called Reg and Ron. Although they only appeared a couple of times each, I still managed to substitute their names for Roger while in full flow. Since then, I've tried to have characters whose names begin with different letters of the alphabet, which helps me as well as any readers (who dey?).
I'm a regular user of Usually not for my MC, but often for secondary characters. I also use birth and death lists--looking for a name for a New Zealander born in 1970? You can check the records for the most common baby names that year. I'm sure you can do that for other places, too. I also like nominative determinism, too, so I'll occasionally throw in a name like Claus Drachenmorder for a professional dragon slayer.
My WIP is set in an alternate universe similar to ancient China, and they names are 'meaningful'. The MC is called 'Sorrow' and has always wondered why she was named that in a world where most girls are called 'Beautiful Spring' (anyone who used to play Street Fighter knows character of Chun-Li whose name has that meaning).

So you can imagine how fun it is to come up with character names: Mighty Mountain, Plum Blossom, Wandering Cloud, etc and of course the nicknames that come with them. A minor character is a small boy named Rainbow, nickname: Bo-bo. (Sorrow's nickname is Saye.)

Also aside, I'm on the last fifth of the book, possibly three more scenes to do .. I'm VERY excited. Then on to the next stage: editing! Can't wait! :D
I get them from all sorts of places - including people I know - and Arabic ones are challenging, but Greek too. A late edit to Sicilian Channel came about when I discovered that one of my characters Nicos Asprodakis (who I'd set as coming from Cephalonia) had a name which was indicative of another part of Greece. Some research showed that names ending -atis would be more likely. So, he became Nicos Loukatis. Who would know or care? Well, I would for a start.
I agree, @James Marinero. I'm my worst critic, and if I notice that I've used an inappropriate name or that I've put a particular insect one valley out of its actual range, I've got to change it, though no one else would even know. That's why I often spend way too much time on research!
With find and replace in most software packages I don't worry too much about the name. I just go with one that seems appropriate then as time passes and ever more thought goes into them, or I hear something somewhere, or see something somewhere or have a dream then I can just use the software change the name throughout the entire WIP.

And if you don't like the new name you can always change it back the same way!
Don't you ever get so brutally attached to your character's name that changing it would be like getting a nose job that entirely destroyed your quirkily crooked charm?
I have to say the MC's name tends to come soon after the initial idea ... and has so far tied in with titles ... invariably there is a play on words somewhere.

Other than that ... I look at the closing titles of films and mix first names with surnames and vice versa ...
I try and put some meaning into my names

Don El Gordo - (Big fat landowner)
Don Nacho El Gordo - (Someone who wants to be nice and accepted)
Don Blando El Gordo - (The soft one)
Don El Enormo El Gordo (The enormous one)
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Death of the Mid-list

Netgalley anyone?