“A my name is Alice and my boyfriend’s name is Andy, we live in Atlanta and we eat apples!”
How many of you remember playing this game, either jumping rope or bouncing a ball? Do kids even play this anymore?
Names are important. They give the reader numerous clues to the character: gender, ethnicity, age. Even hints as to where the character lives or their personality. We gain all this information subtly, in some cases subconsciously. All words carry a freight of indirect information based on their language of origin, usage, and sound, and without getting into a lesson on linguistics, it’s important to know that readers will interpret a great deal about your characters based solely on their name.
Which means we as writers take a lot of care with naming our characters, and so I’d like to list a few resources I find helpful in choosing names, along with my method, such as it is.
At last week’s Kids Author Carnival (which was fantastically fun, thanks to Claire Legrand and the many folks who made it happen), Bruce Coville answered a question on names by telling us he has several baby name books that he uses as a resource. I don’t use a book, but I do use a few websites. ThinkBabyNames is my favorite. Website or book, these are great resources, because not only do they list thousands of names, they list the origin, meaning and variations of the names. And that information gives you the writer the power to influence the indirect information your reader understands about your character.
For example, one of my characters is a nymph of Spring. When I searched Think Baby Names for names meaning “spring,” I got several results, including Chloris, from the Greek “khloros” referring to a minor goddess of vegetation who could also be considered a goddess of spring. Most of my other character names for nymphs had Italian influences, s it was an easy step from Chloris to Clorisse. Voila! My nymph of Spring is Clorisse.
Another author admitted that they collect names they see in print or hear around them – including friend’s names. I haven’t done this yet, but it’s a good idea. (Although you should ask permission from a friend before using their name for a character. Even – or especially – if that character’s the heroine of your story!)
Children’s Writer eNews gave me another resource about names – and how they match up to ages. I don’t suppose FiveThirtyEight intended its article for writers per se, but it’s pretty handy. While much of it may seem common-sense – how many of us know a Mildred or an Elmer aged 30? – it’s great for navigating teen names. Who knew that Brittany was really only popular from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s? (And thus a Brittany is most likely in college or a little older.) And by the way, the Social Security Administration is a wealth of name information, going back to the 1880’s.
Choosing character names can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. And it’s a wonderful way to spend some time getting the creative juices flowing!