Maybe at some point you’ve heard “The Name Game,” a song released in 1964 by Shirley Ellis. The song has a certain rhyme scheme, as Wikipedia details:
Using the name Katie as an example, the song follows this pattern:
Katie, Katie, bo-batie,
Katie! . . .
If the name starts with a vowel or vowel sound, the “b” “f” or “m” is inserted in front of the name. And if the name starts with a b, f, or m, that sound simply is not repeated.
Why am I bringing this up? Because I’ve always been fascinated by character names and the thought process behind their choice. As I read a work of fiction I ask: Did the author employ a carefully thought out system? Or, were the names simply chosen off the top of the author’s head or designed to be variations on existing names, sort of like the rhyme scheme of “The Name Game”?
I love choosing names for my characters. Because I’m writing high fantasy and including some of the creatures found in the mythology of Western cultures, I tend to use Western names. Once I come up with a name possibility, I check its meaning. I can think of few things more embarrassing than to learn that the name I carefully chose for my hero means “banana” or even “coward,” unless that name helps show the character’s emotional arc somehow. I also consider the mood I want to convey in the story. Writers like J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens chose names that helped show mood in their books. So for my book, if the mood is tense or dark, I shouldn’t choose a character name that will undercut the tension (i.e., a name that means “cheerful chipmunk”), unless I’m trying to be ironic.
If you read the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (and if you hated it, please don’t scoff; this is not a review of the series), you’ll note Meyer’s choice of old-fashioned names—a decision that inspired a naming trend among babies. Since her vampire characters were born in an earlier century, choosing contemporary names for them like Britney, Jayden, or Zuri would have seemed jarring.
Back in my days of writing parodies, I didn’t give much thought to name origins. I just used the first goofy name that came to mind. Ever make up a name you thought sounded cool or beautiful, but that later comes across as silly or even pretentious? I made up names for my own amusement, names like Leaferella or Concretola. I know you’re impressed with my naming finesse. Want me to come up with names for the characters in your book? I’ll understand if you don’t. Perhaps you’ll be relieved to know that I’ve given more thought to names these days.
Silly names can work if you’re writing a book with a high level of humor. But humor is a tricky beast. Not everyone gets the joke. And if you picked a name for the sake of a laugh without careful thought, you run the risk of the chosen name being perceived as on par with “Katie, bo-batie.” In other words, something slipshod. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, give serious thoughts to character names.
Here are some naming strategy suggestions, which probably go without saying, but I’ll add them anyway:
• Check the phone book or a baby name book, then check online for the etymology of selected names.
• Keep a list of names that strike your fancy. You might be able to plug those names into a story someday. Case in point: a friend told me the story of someone who bullied her in the fifth grade. I wound up using that person’s name in a story.
• Pay attention to the names of people within the age level you’re writing about. Avoid names that sound overly dated. For example, you won’t find a ton of teens named Egbert these days (but see the next point). Beware overuse though. If you see a dozen young adult novels with a main character named Connor, you might not want to go that route if you want your young adult novel to stand out.
• Consider the cyclical nature of names. Names that sound trendy now might seem dated in a few years, whereas names that went out of style might be in vogue.
• Try to avoid clichés if you can. For example: naming a poodle in your story Fifi.
• Avoid stereotypes while choosing ethnic names. (This point alone is worth its own post.) Take time to research the culture as you choose names.
• Don’t forget the Mary Sue Litmus Test. The first question deals with names.
Great posts on checking names:
What’s your strategy for choosing names?
Name tag from mashable.com. Clipboard from freepsdfile.com.