The Name of the Game

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It’s hard, finding the perfect name. For a kid, for a pet, for a toy, for a character — choosing names is difficult. And when it comes to naming your characters, it has to be perfect because it has to match his/her personality. It’s likely the first thing the reader will encounter. A golden — or not — first impression.

I have several ways to beat this, some mundane and others plain fun. It doesn’t always work, and a character’s name can always change if you find a better suited one, but it’s usually productive and at least enjoyable.

Start a dictionary. Begin with names that are commonplace but not too boring, like Madeleine or Spencer, and add any favourites that pop into your head as you stare at the word processor. You should end up with a fairly long list. Now comes the fun part.

After watching a movie on the weekend, take the time to watch the credits. About halfway through the names and nicknames start to get interesting; “Bear” or “Thunder” might scroll by. And don’t miss the opportunity for last names! Write ’em down, remember ’em, save ’em for later.

Sporting events. I personally don’t watch many of these, but during the Olympics I’ll sit in front of the TV and watch downhill skiing or something and scribble down my favourite names. Maelle was a stand-out for me at Vancouver 2010. Other favourites often were athletes from China, Japan, Korea, and Switzerland: Arisa, Naleryia, Yulia.

French-English dictionary. If you’re looking for a name that fits a character’s personality, look up some adjectives. Sad? Mal. Read? Lire. Pretty? Jolie. And on and on. Sometimes I get caught up in it, imagining characters to go with these names.

Phone book. These are good for last names especially, for obvious reasons.

Maps! I LOVE reading maps. They are simply stuffed with spectacular names! Caspian and Tasman (seas) are personal favourites, but I won’t ruin your map-reading fun.

Get a baby naming book. Your mom might have one, or a friend might. They come complete with meaning, origins, variations, nicknames, and celebrity namesakes. It’s also cute to see the owner have notes scrawled in the margins and names circled or underlined. And don’t think these names are all ordinary: how about Avice, Iolanthe, or Semele? Very elvish feeling, no?

And perhaps the most fun of all is making up something completely original. Mixing two or three names to make one, or experimenting with random sounds and letters to get something you like. I’ve combined Amelia with Jenny to get Jenilia, and Talia with Anna to get Talianna. I’ve concocted Arrasae (pronounced Air-uh-say) through random lettering. See how fun this is?

I once created an entire character based on the last half of the word penicillin. Cillin was a bookbinder who worked in King Ilex’s castle as a bookbinder: two children, not married, dry humour. Unfortunately I haven’t put him to good use yet, but he is a cool guy to have hanging around in my head.

Personally, I find it’s easier to build a character around a name rather than find a name for a character who already exists. Currently I have a nameless girl — who belongs to the same world as Cillin — wandering around with no purpose. She has a background and a cast of marvelous supporting characters, but until I find her a name she’ll continue to sit around and get dusty because I can’t do anything with her.

Time to dig out a map.

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8 thoughts on “The Name of the Game

  1. These are great ideas on how to find a character’s name. I’m with you. I prefer to have a name and build the character around it then find a name for a character that already exists. It’s almost impossible to find the right name.

    I use maps and movie credits for names, too. They are a great resource.

    A few years ago when “The Week the Women Left” took place in Tatamagouche, I found the perfect name for a dwarf in my fantasy novel. The name Tam jumped out and me and I ran with it. Of course, my Tam is nothing like the Tam on that show. 🙂

    • I can’t imagine naming a child — it’s so hard to name a character! Although, I suppose they are children of a sort…
      The perfect names seem to pop up in the most unlikely places, don’t they? 🙂

  2. I also like to find a name first before bringing my character to life.

    I like to glean the obituary column in the Chronicle Herald for unusual names. I’ve found names many times that way. Sometimes I begin with a name that I’m not all that fond of, but one I chose because it was unique. Funny, how a name can settle onto a character making it difficult to imagine it being anything else.

    • Using obituaries is very resourceful; unfortunately I do not always have access to newspapers. Yes, a name just settles into the very being of a character, like a second skin, doesn’t it? Once I tried recycling a name, and it just would not stick because in my mind I was picturing the original character. 😉
      Thanks for stopping by, Laura!

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