What’s In a Name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

—From Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

I’ve been editing my WIP, Kyresa, for the last time (and yes, I really mean it!). Since it is a fantasy book, it has a collection of unusual names, as do many of the books I read in the Fantasy and Sci-Fi genres. Add to that my plethora of friends with wildly interesting names, and I got to thinking—what’s in a name?

Parents often spend months coming up with a suitable list of names for their soon-to-be-born, one that will need to stick with the child as she grows up, takes on her own unique traits, and eventually becomes who and what she is as a person. So how is it that parents pick the perfect name?

And in a similar manner, how is it that we, as authors, pick our characters’ names?

We almost have an easier task, I think: we have a vision for a character, a set of traits, experiences, and journeys already in mind as we set about to write, and from this we can choose a name to match. Sometimes, we may already know the name in advance—and like the choosing of a baby name before parents know anything about their child, somehow, the name tends to fit. (And if it doesn’t, we can always change it later without the hassle of legal paperwork. Thank goodness!)

When I write, I usually have a vision of a character and then suddenly the name just comes out on paper. I really can’t explain how this happens—I see the character doing A, B, or C, and start typing, and then suddenly said character’s name is right there, typed in front of me. Usually, the name sticks. If nothing’s called to me immediately, the name will be a placeholder. I won’t lie—[the chick], [sassafras], and [what’s his face] have been used as temporary holds before. 🙂 Still, it’s generally pretty rare for me to not feel the rush of a suitable name. Even rarer is a name change—Kyresa actually underwent a slight change a year ago, requiring me to undo over a decade of pronouncing her name the old way as I talked about her character. That was tough. But tougher was finding a new name for a character I’d known so long. (Envision post-its with different spellings of names all over the house for a month and you’ve nailed the experience.)

Since I usually feel the name as I write, I suppose that explains how parents can look at their newborn and know the name they’ve chosen is the right one. So I’m curious—how do you pick names for your characters? Do you flip through baby books, or keep a catalog of names alphabetically? Do you sound out syllables until they match the feeling you have for the character? Or, do you simply drop them on the page like I do, changing them only if they conflict with your vision of the character?

Please feel free to share your methods in the comment section below. Whether it be for baby names or character names, how do you smell a rose? 🙂

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About Eva Rieder

Eva Rieder is a speculative and contemporary/mainstream fiction author. By day, she masquerades as a high school Math and English teacher. Though she adores teaching and her students very much, when Eva returns home she reglues her fingertips to the keyboard to pursue her alter ego’s destiny. She currently lives and writes in Northern California with her two keyboard-savvy cats. View all posts by Eva Rieder

10 responses to “What’s In a Name?

  • Local Writing Jobs

    That was an excellent post. Thanks for sharing it. I really enjoyed it very much.

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  • Lea Jurock

    With character names I sometimes pick the letter I want it to start with or I know what I want the characters name to mean and try to find something suitable. But whatever I do, I always have to perfectly match the name with how I see my character. 🙂

    • Eva Rieder

      I agree with you there, Lea. The name has to match the vision! I like the idea of starting with a letter. Thank you for sharing your method—I’m curious how others do it, but I imagine everyone has their own perfect strategy. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  • Sara

    Fantastic! Especially considering my own obsession with naming our impending baby. I have sometimes written whole stories with one name and changed it later because it just didn’t feel right. Character names are never by accident, though–they are deliberate indications of who the character is, and part of our subconscious definition of them. However, there are times when I have read something, and the name felt so awkward, it was a distraction to me, and pulled me out of the story.

    • Eva Rieder

      I have felt this as well, Sara. Sometimes, particularly in fantasy reading, the oddity of the name can prickle at your acceptance of the character. Since we as authors can name our “babies” after we know them, it really is amazing to me how people name their babies before they’re born! I wish you luck with your impending little one. 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

  • rebeccaoftomorrow

    I’ve thought about all of this too – especially how when you name a baby you don’t know what they will grow into, whereas when you name a character, you (often) do. I’d say that yes, I strive for names that relate to who the characters ARE…unless I just dream up a name that somehow works for them.

    • Eva Rieder

      I think the naming of babies must be a magical premonition or something. It continues to astound me. As authors, we have so much more control over the character matching the name—and so much more time to think it over, really (or dream it!). Thanks for commenting, Rebecca.

  • True STORIES.

    I think I do all of the above. Sometimes a name just drops on the page as a placeholder and I end up using it. Sometimes I think methodically–what is the time period, what kind of person is this, etc. Sometimes I search name indexes–and since I love choosing and learning about names, this can eat up a lot of my time!

    • Eva Rieder

      I agree with that, Jessica! I must have re-spelled Kyresa’s name about 30 times, which wasn’t a quick experiment. Someone on twitter mentioned reading the Social Security Death Index. Oh my! I’ve also heard of flipping through the phone book. Sometimes it comes to you, and sometimes there is some work involved, but I’m glad to hear we’re all on the same page! 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

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