My Creative Process: Naming Characters

The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins found inspiration in the katniss plant when she named her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Washington Irving probably named Ichabod Crane after a U.S. Army colonel he met. (Ichabod means without glory, and the biblical Ichabod figures in a confusing story about the Ark.) In writing Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell called her protagonist Pansy. By the time she finished the novel, she was dissatisfied with Pansy, so cast about for an Irish name to go with O’Hara. She turned the surname Scarlett into a first name.

Sometimes when my work is in the embryonic stage, a character becomes so vivid in my mind that his or her name comes to me in an explosion of thought. In a short story, I named a prim, fussy, old-fashioned girl Vivi. In another short story, I named my protagonist Lizzie Prine. Lizzie is a farm girl with a talent for telling jokes. She becomes famous as a comedian. In “Dina, the Warrior,” Dina is a strong-minded little girl who refuses to accept her brother’s death.

More often, finding the right name for a character is challenging. Occasionally, the impulse to get a story on the computer screen has forced me to use place names until I can find the right names for characters. I don’t like to do it that way, but sometimes it happens. I can’t write too long, though, without naming characters.

Naming has some rules. If characters were born in the late 1800s, I doubt if I’d name them Rumi or Cody. I’d think about the era in which the characters’ parents were born—after all, they named the child. What were their influences? For generations, my Dill ancestors named sons after George Washington.

Where was the character born? Check for similarities with other characters’ names. Don’t confuse readers with a Sandy and a Candy in the same story. Sound is important. Be sure to say the name out loud. Does the sound convey the character’s persona?

After she had thoroughly fleshed out her protagonist, there are a hundred reasons Margaret Mitchell didn’t want to name her after a timid little flower.

To strengthen an aspect of a character’s personality, I try to find the root of the name. Was it a Greek word for warrior or sword? The Oxford Dictionary of First Names is helpful. Dorothea is from the Greek doron (gift) and (theos). I would use this name carefully. Gregory is from the Greek Gregorein (to watch, be vigilant). Early Christians were attracted to this name due to the biblical injunction to be sober, be vigilant (1 Peter 5:8). Brian, of Irish origin, means high or noble.

I tried an online name generator to see how well it worked, finding there were not enough filters to be effective. However, it was fun and I appreciated the alliteration of first and last names.

The first week in April, I plan to attend the Writers’ Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Watch for a report of Institute experiences in my next post.

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