How to Name Fictional Characters

three tips on choosing a character name

How-to articles on naming fictional characters are a dime a dozen. But most are a litany of tips — some important, others not so much. So I thought I’d try boiling the best of the advice down to a single sentence. Here’s what I came up with:

“Each character’s name should fit the setting, fit the character, and be distinct within the story.”

The sentence contains three different objectives, so let’s look out each one separately:

Fit the setting

The name should be appropriate for the time and place in which the story occurs. A romance set in 18th-century England could be between an Elizabeth and a Frederick, but not a Nevaeh and a Jayden. Similarly, the protagonist of a 24th-century space opera could be named something standard/plain (John) or futuristic (Loxxan), but probably not something very old (Holmketill), or even slightly old (Clarence).

Fit the character

The name should suit the character, primarily in terms of permanent descriptors (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity), but also, perhaps, in terms of personality traits (e.g., bubbly, gracious, haughty).

Stereotyping in general is bad, but when it comes to character names, it’s very useful: You want the name to give the correct impression of the character right away. A woman from India should be named Padma, not Margaret. A man from Germany should be called Armin, not Oakley.

You could also take it a step further and choose a name that reflects the character’s personality in a subtle way. A friendly woman could be an Amy, while a complex woman could be Demetria. Do this mainly with sounds and associations, which will be picked up instantly by the reader.

Be distinct within the story

The name should not look or sound similar to any of the other names in the story, or else the reader could get confused. Pay special attention to first letters and to repeated sounds. If the protagonists are sisters, name them Mila and Harriet, not Katie and Kelly. Likewise, if the main characters are brothers, use the names Brian and Luke, not Aidan and Adam.

…What are your thoughts on this topic?

Cat-Naming Tip: Think “High-Pitched”

cat-naming tip

Cats don’t often respond when called by name. In fact, they seem to enjoy blissfully ignoring their humans.

So if you’ve recently acquired a kitty and want to increase the likelihood that he/she will respond when called, choose the right name, and remember to say it the right way.

According to Vancouver veterinarian Dr. Uri Burstyn, “cats have evolved to hear high-pitched sounds much better than low-pitched sounds because most of their prey animals — rodents, birds — all communicate in a very high frequency, stuff that humans can’t hear.” He also notes that cats respond more regularly to names that terminate in a high-pitched sound, particularly an “ee” sound.

PetMD.com agrees:

Cats have been noted to respond better to high-pitched human voices … Cats also respond to names containing the long e-vowel, or “ee” sound.

So, to catch your cat’s attention, name it something like Smokey or Missy as opposed to something like Tigger or Shadow. (All four of these names were top-10 cat names in San Diego in 2016, btw.)

And, whatever name you choose, remember say it in a high pitch for maximum effect.

Sources: Cat names that get your cat’s attention – what should I name my cat? (vid), Naming Your Kitten – petMD

Baby-Naming Tip: Set a Time Limit

stopwatchHere’s an idea for all you over-thinkers out there: set a time limit to your baby-naming process.

Why?

One study found that “people tend to underestimate the temporal costs of choosing relative to the benefits of finding the best option. Consequently, decision makers insist on exercising their choice opportunities even when these opportunities lead to poor outcomes.”

Translation: Decision-makers can spend too much time researching all the options.

Yes, there’s an advantage to having more knowledge. But don’t forget that your time has value, too. And that having extra knowledge doesn’t guarantee you’ll make a better decision.

In certain circumstances, the costs associated with the time spent searching for the best option may even be greater than the benefits that option provides, resulting in faulty decisions and undesirable outcomes.

For baby names, this could mean looking at so many options that you go off track and choose a name that you would never have considered months earlier. Only to end up suffering from baby name regret (which, yes, is a thing now).

How should you go about setting a time limit? Here are some ideas:

  • Start your search now, but set a deadline and make yourself accountable somehow (i.e., share the deadline with close friends).
    • You could also try a series of deadlines: “We’ll narrow it down to 10 names in January, 5 in February, and make the final decision in March.”
  • Put off the search until later in the pregnancy. Table all baby name conversations until a certain date.
  • If you have a weakness for internet chit-chat, bar yourself from joining name-themed Facebook groups, message boards, etc. If you’ve already joined, un-join. Use your browser to block certain sites if need be.

Do you have any other time-saving tips (or efficiency tips) for all the name-seekers out there?

Source: Botti, Simona and Christopher K. Hsee. “Dazed and confused by choice: How the temporal costs of choice freedom lead to undesirable outcomes.” (PDF) Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 112 (2010): 161-171.

Find More Family Names Over the Holidays

how to find more family names

It’s December! A month full of gatherings. Particularly family gatherings.

This is great news for expectant parents who want to find a family name, but haven’t had any luck with the obvious choices (like parent names and grandparents names). Family gatherings are the perfect place to dig a little deeper — for more names in the family tree, or for names that aren’t technically in the family tree, but that are strongly associated with your family in some other way.

All you have to do is start asking questions.

Essentially, you want to ask your older relatives about their personal history and best memories. This won’t just benefit you — it’ll make your relatives feel valued, it’ll make the occasion memorable for everyone, and it’ll keep the conversation focused (so that no one can veer off into, say, politics).

Here are some questions you could use. They’re geared toward uncovering important people, places, events, symbols, and other noun-y type things that might make good baby names. (If you have any other question ideas, leave a comment!)

Family Member Interview Questions

Self Where and when were you born?
What’s your full name?
Is there a story behind your name?
What nicknames have you had, as a child and as an adult?
Siblings If you had siblings, what were their names/nicknames?
Parents Where and when were they born?
What are their full names?
Is there a story behind their names?
Did they have nicknames?
What were they like?
What is your fondest memory of them?
(Did this happen at a particular place or event?)
What other items, places, events, people, ideas, and so forth do you associate with them?
Aunts & Uncles If you had aunts and uncles, what were their names/nicknames?
Grandparents Where and when were they born?
What are their names?
Is there a story behind any of their names?
Did they have nicknames?
What is your fondest memory of them?
(Did this happen at a particular place or event?)
What other items, places, events, people, ideas, and so forth do you associate with them?
Ancestors Do you remember your great-grandparents or any other older relatives?
What were their names?
What stories have come down to you about the ancestors you never met?
(Do you have any famous ancestors?)
What items, places, events, people, ideas, and so forth are associated with any of these ancestors?
Family Friends What significant family friends do you remember?
What other people have helped your family in some significant way?
Family Memories What did your family do together? Think activities, traditions, locations, etc.
What is your fondest family memory?
(Did this happen at a particular place or event?)
What special items in your home do you remember?
Personal Memories
(childhood & teen years)
What did you like to do?
Where did you like to spend time?
Who were your good friends?
What special places did you travel?
What people (teachers, coaches, community members) were particularly helpful to you?
What is your fondest childhood memory?
What is your fondest memory of your teenage years?
What other items, places, events, people, ideas, and so forth do you associate with these times in your life?
Personal Memories
(adulthood)
What did you like to do?
Where did you like to spend time?
Who were your good friends?
What special places did you travel?
What people (friends, mentors, coworkers, community members) were particularly helpful to you?
What is your fondest adulthood memory?
What other items, places, events, people, ideas, and so forth do you associate with this time in your life?
Significant Other What is/was his/her name?
When and where did you meet?
If you married, when and where did you marry?
What is your fondest memory of him/her?
(Did this happen at a particular place or event?)
What other items, places, events, people, ideas, and so forth do you associate with this person/relationship?
Personal Highlights Describe the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to you.
Describe the time/place you remember feeling the most content and at peace.
Which person (either friend or public figure) has had the biggest positive influence on your life?

As you take notes, remember to be open-minded. Try not to dismiss any name right away.

First, because many names have other forms. So you might not like Grandpa Ivan’s name, but “Ivan” could lead you to something you do like: Evan, Sean, Gianni, Johnny…

Second, any name could end up being associated with multiple family members, and hence have a greater overall significance than you would have expected. Maybe you’re not so sure about your mother-in-law’s maiden name, Lloyd…until you hear some hilarious story involving your own great-grandfather and an ill-fated fishing trip to a place called Lloyd’s Creek, which helps you see “Lloyd” in a whole new light.

If you end up finding a great baby name this year after talking with your relatives, come back and lets us know!

Has a Baby Name Ever Come to You in a Dream?

has a baby name ever come to you in a dreamTo find baby names, most of us turn to the same few sources: name books, name websites, family trees, life experiences, pop culture…

And then there are those lucky people who have gotten baby names straight from their dreams. Not daydreams — literal overnight dreams.

If you’re one of these people, please take a minute to fill out a short survey, 6 questions total. Why? Because I’d like to know more about this phenomenon. (Eventually I’d like to see if they can be reverse-engineered, perhaps using dream incubation techniques, but for now I’d just like to collect and analyze some data.)

So what do you think we should call a baby name that comes from a dream? An oneironym (“dream” + “name”)? How about a somnonym (“sleep” + “name”)? Something else?