The Art of Creating Character Names

Last week I wrote about the Golden Rules for naming characters. Today I will dig into the art of creating character names. Names can do more than label characters. They can be quick ways to define relationships, provide backstory, and above all, add another layer of reality to our fiction.

Choose Variety

In my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I had to name a lot of characters in a small amount of narrative space. Selecting names from a variety of different languages helped me differentiate between characters and aided readers in keeping the cast straight. My story is set in rural, southeast Ohio. 90-95% of the population is descended from European immigrants. Having lived in the area, I knew what languages I could pick from to create believable names.

My main character is searching for her father and has three candidates. I had to make those male characters distinct. One way was to give them last names from three different languages, Irish, English, and Polish. So I came up with O’Neil, Carlisle, and Malinowski.

In the U.S., English names can signify old money. I chose Carlisle as the last name for a wealthy businessman. He has three children, so I stuck to the English theme and named them Allison, Richard, and Sylvia.

The sheriff got the last name Malinowski and also has three kids. To keep the two sets of kids separate, I needed a different naming pattern. I introduce the Malinowski family at a church lunch, so I chose Hebrew names for the kids, Aaron and Micah. The oldest is called Rusty, which I will explain below.

Names provide backstory.

For some reason I can’t recall, I liked the idea of the sheriff going by the nickname Mal, based on his last name, Malinowski. That forced me to examine why he preferred a nickname to his first name. He probably hated his first name. What would be an awful first name for a Gen X guy? Walter seemed to fit the bill. But his mother is a character in the story, and she seems like a genuinely nice woman. Why would she saddle her son with a name like that? Because it’s a family name. So I created Walter R. Malinowski IV. His oldest son is called Rusty. It doesn’t take much thought from the reader to figure out why.

By digging deeper into the reason behind my name, I developed my characters.

Names define relationships.

The wealthy business man is Jason Carlisle and he has a brother Rick. Jason also has a son Richard. That tells the reader, without me explicitly saying so, that the brothers are close. I have a scene in which Jason teases Rick about his dating life and that demonstrates the kind of relationship they have, but the names are a quiet code that reinforces the idea.

Side Note: I just realized I violated my rule of not having names look alike with Rick and Richard. I’ll have to watch out for that.

Your turn. What names have you created for characters? Why? What memorable names have you come across in stories?

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