The Name Game

name-tag-600Maybe 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,
Banana-fana fo-fatie
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.

twilight-coverIf 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.

clipboard-iconHere 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 Clipboard from

24 thoughts on “The Name Game

  1. I’m completely absorbed by name choices too, Linda. Their first impression. Their symbolism. The feel of them in the mouth. How they reinforce a character’s personality. I also think about pronunciation across international borders, since some names can be beautiful in one language, but not as beautiful–maybe even unpronounceable–in another. It’s all so fascinating.

    • I love symbolic names. Sometimes a name strikes me and then by serendipity I discover the name’s meaning is symbolic. That’s happened in my current novel.

      I totally understand what you mean! You come across this in poetry a lot when rhyme schemes depend on the original language.

  2. What’s in a name, eh? I must admit to being quite remiss when it comes to naming characters. I usually just pick a name from the phone book. Why? Because I hate it when I read or watch something where the character has an obviously ‘sexy’ name. We’re all given name without a say in it. Not all of us like our names. Our characters are the same. Kevin is the name of the little scamp in my children’s book – Kevin the Choirboy. The Reverend is called Jones. The big fat lady, and congregation of one, is called Mrs Rampage. That took all of thirty seconds to decide. More time to get on with bringing them to life.

    • I’ve used names from a phone book. I love a good nickname as well. I have a few of those in my novel.

      Love the name Mrs. Rampage!!! It’s Roald Dahl-esque.

      • If I could write something half as good as Mr. Dahl, I’ll be happy!

  3. Leaferella sounds like a sarcastic nickname for a fairy princess. I use the baby book and baby name site method. With a general idea of the character, I go with meanings to help get that across. At least with main characters. Minor ones are a wild grab for whatever sounds right at the time.

    Funny that you mention names because it reminds me of something I keep meaning to do in my series. There’s a set of 6 names that I wanted to repeat in my series as minor characters. Like a shopowner having the name once and then a standard warrior might have it later. Maybe even use some of them as a group. Eventually, the reason for this revealed in another series, but I always wonder how a group of names being repeated would go over.

    • Ha! True! Or a woodland fairy.
      I see nothing wrong with repeating a name. I have two characters with the same name. 🙂 It makes sense, since we often know more than one person with the same name.

  4. Thank you for sharing the tips and links. Characters names have to be just right, and I like how writers take them time to make sure they have the right ones to suit the story 🙂

  5. I always loved the Name Game when I was a kid! Our blog brains must be connected in some strange way, Linda. I started a draft post last weekend on this very subject. Naming characters is one of my favorite things to do. I have a long list! I’m big on looking at name tags worn by cashiers or customer service employees in stores. Enjoy your day!

  6. I’m completely obsessed with names. My first stories that I wrote as a kid were essentially just lists of names. Now I spend a lot of time trying to get the names right. I check the social security lists and baby name voyager to see when a name would have been popular, and what the popular names were by state or region. I also have ended up using a lot of family names from my great grandparents generation.

  7. Concretola cracked me up Linda. I’ve always been so fickle with names — I think I like one, then I want to change it every other time I sit down to write. Every once in awhile one will stick, but not often!

  8. I actually found the name Garren Teed from a google search. Two brothers named Garren Teed and Warren Teed. I thought Garren Teed would be a hilarious name for a country music promoter. Usually, my characters choose their names, but poor Mister Teed didn’t get that chance. 🙂

  9. Great post! I’ve used the baby names option–and check the meanings as well. Or sometimes I’ve started with a meaning and then chosen a name I liked from the ones that fit. Other times I’ve chosen them because I liked the sound. Thanks to your tips and links I now have more resources!

  10. The fifth grade bully: I was trying to come up with a name for a disturbed, dangerous character in a short story when a girl who in school disliked and bullied my wife passed by the window-of course I used her name. But due to gender changed the Joanne to Joe. But kept the surname.
    Fortuitous timing. 🙂

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