How I Name (Or Don’t) My Characters

I know there are writers who put a lot of thought into naming their characters. Name origin, ethnic connotations, new and inventive spellings of old names – you name it (pun intended) it’s been done. And yes, there are some pretty cool ways to go about naming your characters.

But, I’m just not one of those writers.

I’m what I call an extreme pantster. I don’t do any planning or plotting, and there’s sure as hell no outlining in my world. I generally know what’s going to happen and how the story will end, but I don’t know how it will unfold.

I don’t even know my character’s names.

When I was writing this post I was reminded of a Neil Gaiman quote from Coraline:

β€œWhat’s your name,’ Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”
“Cats don’t have names,” it said.
“No?” said Coraline.
“No,” said the cat. “Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Not only is this a great example of how cheeky cats could be if they spoke English, but it’s also how I think of my characters before I need to assign them a jumble of pronounceable letters that we call a name. Who they are is what’s important, not what I’ll call them.

I generally think of them as Girl Character, Boy Character, Quirky Friend, Silly Pedestrian… whatever the situation calls for. This is how my brain accesses that character file right up to the point in the manuscript where common sense demands they have a name, at which time I have them tell me.

I stop for a beat, and say, “What’s your name?” And they tell me.

In the case of NOT A DROP TO DRINK I needed a name pretty quickly. I knew the first line of the book long before I started writing it — “Girl Character was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond.” But, that doesn’t quite have what it takes, does it?

So I asked, and she told me her name was Lynn.

I was like – “WOW! That’s a totally perfect name! Your mom would have picked a practical one-syllable name because she might have to yell for you in dangerous situations. She needed something quick, something that would carry in the wind. Yeah. That makes total sense. Your name is Lynn.”

How serendipitous was it that much later – as in, months – I looked up the meaning of her name and it’s derived from the Gaelic for pond or lake, and is usually used for someone who lives near water.

Um, yeah. She totally knew what she was doing.

15 thoughts on “How I Name (Or Don’t) My Characters

  1. Oh, would you look that. It's a pun.


    Anyways, this was such a cool post for me! I seriously wish characters would just name themselves for me… but well, that's just not the case. Normally what I do is scroll through lists or a random name generator. I stop, and ask, “Is this your name?”. Of course, most of the time, the answer is no, and after about an hour of trying, I finally find the name that really clicks.

    It's a long process.

    Also, so cool that Lynn's name means pond/lake or someone that lives near water. I wish my characters knew what they were doing.

    I don't even know what I'm doing 99% of the time, so I suppose I shouldn't say anything about them. πŸ˜‰

    Lovely post! <3

  2. That's so cool about your character's name. I'm a huge pantser as well but I HAVE to know the names of my characters first. My characters names usually reveal something about their character/true personality so for me, finding that out is a way of getting to know them.

  3. Pantsers unite! I like my character's names to come out of the blue so they don't feel forced.

    This is also cool, because I'm writing a novelette based on a story my fantasy MC is reading, and it's about a baysprite (a Sprite who lives near the ocean) named Lenne!

  4. My characters often change names in the middle of writing an MS. I'm actually going through the process of changing some names right now.

    And I'm a Planner, you just don't need a name in an outline, you just go “MC”, “SC1”, “SC2″…

  5. Hah. I used to HATE naming my characters when I was younger and dreamed of being a comic book artist (Manga-ka) πŸ˜› I remember I started drawing a story and was so unmotivated to think of names, I just named them “Boy” and “Girl.” Yeup. Those were their names…

  6. I'm a panster too, and rarely ever outline anything on paper. Instead, I'll have the ideas for how a scene is going to play out just fermenting in my brain until suddenly, it's turned into the good stuff and it's ready to become real.

    As for the naming, I'm slightly different inasmuch that I need to know the characters better before I go writing about them. But then I ferment my stories for a while usually before actually putting them on paper, so by then the characters have gotten around to introducing themselves. On the rare occasion, one will come up and I'll know them right from the off, but usually it takes a few days at lease.

  7. I can so relate to this. I do a little too much planning to be a pure pantster, but I don't do much more than I have to until I'm writing. Finding the name is part of my character creation process. For minor characters, the first thing I often decide on is the name. Since I don't write in an even remotely contemporary time period, I'm free to make things up. I've found a quick process. I use syllables at hand and put them together in interesting ways. Most of the time I create characters on the fly and they usually come out of hiding quickly and find a name that seems natural. For main characters, I do more planning. For instance, I got inspired while watching Fugitive and a character stole a trait from Tommy Lee Jones's characcter. So he became Captain Tlejon (well, initially Leyjon, but that was too similar in appearance to a central place name). I changed it after writing several chapters. Most names have no such fun meaning and are just gibberish that looks good.

  8. I love picking out names for characters, but I don't put too much thought into it. I usually scroll through the social security baby names site and one will jump out at me. It just feels right.

    I'm a pantser too, but I'll sometimes write notes/ideas down in a notebook before starting to write. But for me, I need that character name before I get into it too much.

    I've tried writing using girl1 if I don't have a name, but I don't get far before I have to stop and figure out what that name will be.

  9. Really interesting insight! For me, some characters give me their names almost straight away – others I have to prod and dig and ponder and possibly look into origin/ meaning to get it. But I always have the names of my characters before I begin writing (even if the name is only a substitute until I discover their proper one).

    And that's SO cool how the meaning of Lynn ties in so perfectly with the whole water theme.

  10. Love this! I wish I could identify them as you do your characters, but mine have to have a name. They usually tell me and will fight me if I try to change it. In the case of Trent and his son Trevor, we are still at odds…My only saving grace is Trent is Death. Maybe it won't matter.

  11. Wow! Thanks everyone for weighing in – it's really cool how every person has their own approach to naming their characters. It's such a personal thing… we HAVE to get the right one, don't we?

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