I’m currently faced with the challenge of naming a new character. This is harder than non-writers realize. You can’t just slap any name down and declare the job done — the name must match the character, match the story, and match the reader’s imagination.
Here are five things to think about when picking a character name.
Get the time period right. Names go in and out of fashion just like clothing. Do a bit of research to find which names were popular in which eras. A reader happily immersed in Victorian England is going to be jarred right out of the story if they come across a flower girl named Courtney or Kaylee.
Say them out loud. If you can’t pronounce them easily, your readers surely can’t. And while a name might look perfectly fine on paper, if read aloud (think audio-books), it might create a different impression than you imagined.
Check the meaning. One great way to create memorable characters is to use a name that indicates their personality. You don’t have to actually name your character Stone to show that he’s inflexible – the name Peter would work just as well. If your readers don’t already know that’s what the name means, they’ll get a little thrill out of looking up the name and discovering that fact.
Keep the cast separate. Avoid having more than one character with the same initials, or with names that sound alike. It’s just too confusing to the readers, and eventually, to you as well.
Research the origin. There’s little more embarrassing than being caught doing faulty research by your readers. One easy way to trip yourself up is by using ethnic names. Always research carefully to be sure your character has an appropriate name — or a convincing reason to have an unusual one.
There are plenty of other tips and tricks for naming characters, but this will get you started on the right foot. What advice do you have for naming your characters?
In addition to digging through the old newspapers in San Francisco, I was lucky enough to find two old almanacs from the years that Kye and Chance would have been living there. Not as much information as a newspaper offers, but lots of flavor.
An almanac, if you can find one for the correct year, is a great way to spice up your writing. This one had “receipts” (recipes) and home remedies along with advertisements. There were even a few jokes, some of which actually withstood the test of time and were still humorous.
Imagine how much more real your characters will seem if they spout the latest notions or head for the store to purchase the latest patent medicine.
What’s the weirdest medical treatment you’ve ever heard about?
Spent the day in the San Francisco library researching old newspapers. There’s something satisfying about reading an old newspaper — even if it’s not from the 1800’s. Some of the material is dated, of course. You may not recognize the famous-at-the-moment names in the articles, and the products advertised might be obsolete, but you can see that folks back then lived a lot like we do today. They worried about the same sorts of things. They enjoyed the same sorts of recreation and entertainment. They traveled, voted, lost and found or bought and sold items … newspapers bring the past to life for us in a way that history books can’t.
The really old papers, such as the ones I was reading, are like a little time-machine. Even without photographs, you can see drawings of what people were wearing or buying. You know what they paid for that ferry ride or train trip. You know which play they saw at the local theater. Newspapers are better than almost any other resource when you’re after historical facts and flavor.
If you can manage it, make a trip to the library and read through the old papers (or microfilm) yourself. It’s worth a day of reading. Your characters will become more alive as they move about the town, taking in a debate or play, paying for a taxicab with the actual fees, or even just looking at the local advertisements and dreaming about something they’d buy if they had the money.