I spend a lot of time choosing names for my characters. I believe the “perfect” name can give readers a sense of who your characters are, even before they learn another thing about them. Of course, different names mean different things to different people*, but I believe many distinctive names come "pre-loaded" with character qualities.
For instance, I have certain preconceived notions about people with these names. Do you?
- Angus McDougal
- Charles Wellington III
Some things I consider when picking names (or nicknames):
1) Physical appearance. What does the character look like? What mannerisms do they exhibit? I think it would be weird to write about a guy with black hair named Red.
2) Nationality or cultural heritage.
3) Socioeconomic background. Charles Wellington III doesn’t sound like a pauper to me.
4) Family names. If a character has a mother named Mary and a father named John, I wouldn't name him Xerxes.
6) Age. This is one of the biggest factors I consider. Agnes might work for a senior citizen, but I don't know too many four-year-old kids named Agnes.** The Social Security Administration has an invaluable site that lists the most popular baby names for any year, going back to 1880.*** I always check my names against their database before making a final decision.
7) The initial letter of other characters' names. I don't want to confuse readers (okay, I don't want to confuse myself), so I track the letters I use, for both male and female first names, as well as for last names. I won't use the same initial letter for two characters, if I can possibly help it. (Have you ever read a book with a Jim, John, Joe, Jeff, and Jerry? Tough sledding.)
8) Is the name easy to type? If I’m going to be typing someone’s name a ton of times, I sure don't want something like Xanthippe or Rumpelstiltskin. (On the other hand, too many three letter names would seem a bit odd…)
Finally, after I pick a name, I conduct the smell test:
Knowing everything I know about my character, can I "picture" him/her with that name? If not, it's on to the next possibility.
What are some of your tips for naming characters?
*A lot depends on the people you've met throughout your life. If a jerk named Dirk used to steal your lunch money, then you might be predisposed to dislike anyone else named Dirk.
**For the record, I have nothing against anyone named Agnes.
***In 1880, John was the most popular male name, and Mary was the most popular female name. Xerxes didn't make the top 1000.