I fucking refuse to believe I’m the only one that’s sat down to write and instead spent that time trying to name their characters. Hours, I’m talking about. Full afternoons. Not writing. Not plotting. Not even crafting the character, really. Just bouncing around entries on thinkbabynames.com or something and trying to imagine the differences between a Lily and a Lilah. Is the character a Dylan or do they have more Lucas vibes? I already have one character name stolen from Shakespeare, can I do another one?
You know. Shit like that. Anything that kind of, sort of counts as work without actually having to sit there and make the words go. So, let’s all take breaks from our WIPs and talk about how to name our characters.
The Buffy Problem: Stock Characters
Using Stock Character-type Names to Your Advantage
One of the perks of creating characters instead of creating actual human beings is you have way more control over the finished product. Sure, many writers insist that their characters will begin acting on their own and surprising them. The thing is, when you’re in the zone writing a scene and a character does something you didn’t plan on, you can reread the scene and, if you don’t like, write that shit out. If your actual human child decides to knock over the Circle-K you can’t exactly call a mulligan with the cops because you gave your kid a classic ‘boy next door’ name.
You can’t have a baby and name her Pollyanna and expect her to grow up all apple-cheeks and sweet innocence. But you can name a character Pollyanna and instantly convey to your reader exactly who that character is supposed to be.
I find this sort of direct approach is better with minor characters. If you’re going to be exploring a character and truly fleshing them out for the reader, using a stereotypical name that correctly conveys who they are can feel like a slap in the face. But if they’re only there for support, or for a few scenes, and you need the audience to immediately understand who they are, then a stereotype can be super helpful. Got a grumpy old lady character who’s there and gone? Agnes. Boom. Done. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Going Against the Stock Character-type for Fun and Profit
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a perfect example of this. Except, it’s also the perfect example for…
Stock Characters in Popular Culture Evolve and Sometimes Stop Existing Completely
Once upon a time, in those dark days when bright colors were all the rage and Reagan terrorized the shadows, a new breed of Stock Characters arose: the Yuppie. These Young Urban Professional were sort of like preppies all grown up. They were white, trust-fund kids who failed their way through Yale on Daddy’s dime and spent their summers playing tennis in Montauk. They wore their brightly colored Polo shirts with the collars popped and didn’t use their blinkers when they drove their BMWs. They were your Chads, your Blaines, your Muffys, and your Buffys.
When the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie came out in 1992, the use of the name Buffy was part of the joke. You didn’t even have to look at the poster to know who Buffy was – a rich white girl who only cares about clothes and boys. And she’s going to slay vampires? Gag me with a spoon!
By the time the show came out, that association with the name had faded. I was born in the late eighties and when I started watching the show as a young adult I certainly didn’t get the joke. My dad had to explain it to me. While Chad and Blaine certainly still have that ‘rich annoying white person’ connotation, I think Buffy has lost it. Potentially because of the television series. Sort of how we all think of ‘nimrod’ as an insult thanks to Bugs Bunny, but Nimrod was actually the name of a Biblical hunter which is why Bugs was calling Elmer Fudd that in the first place. The movie and show capitalized on the ‘rich bimbo’ connotations with the name Buffy, but once the show got popular it sort of…okay, I don’t know if the name is normalized, but it certainly made an entire generation of people see the name in a completely different light.
This got convoluted.
What’s My Point Again?
Basically that giving a character a ‘stock’ name to subvert the tropes may work in the moment, but as time moves on and language changes you may lose the subversion or the joke entirely. That Buffy movie came out in 1992. It’s only been three decades and already the joke is basically lost! Also, let’s not lose sight of the most important fact: Joss Whedon is allegedly a terrible person (Update from January 2022: He admitted he’s a terrible person with his own mouth).
The Paul Problem
Here’s a fun fact about me: I don’t like Dune.
What? you say. How can you not like Dune? It’s a certified classic! One of the best science fiction books ever written! Herbert was a fucking genius, one of the all the times greats, and right now he’s spinning so hard in his grave over this blatant and disgusting disrespect he’s creating a wormhole he can crawl through to punch you in the mouth! The movie had Sting in it!
There. Am I missing anything? If you have an opinion on my opinion on Dune not listed above, please email it to email@example.com.
I read it for my husband because it’s one of his favorite books, but I’m not here today to talk about why I don’t like it. I’m here today to talk about the first time I tried to read it.
Years before we met, I bought Dune with the intent to read it because I do fully understand the reputation the book has. I got no more than ten pages in and quit, for one very stupid reason.
Paul and Jessica.
These books take place twenty thousand years in the future. Twenty thousand! I can’t even count that high! And they’re in space. And not just, like, immediate space. They’re not farting around the Kuiper belt or something. They’re in far flung space, so far out in the middle of the fucking Space Boonies I don’t even know where Earth is in relation to it all.
And don’t come in here and tell me that they answer that question in one of the eighty-seven sequels, or even in the first book, because I don’t care and that’s not my point.
My point is:
Are you trying to tell me that twenty thousand years in the future and Allah-knows how many lightyears away from here, humanity is still using Paul and Jessica???
Totally turned me off. I mean, completely and utterly. I couldn’t get past it. Twenty-thousand years is potentially enough time for humans to evolve – especially if presented with the physical turmoil of space travel – but you’re telling me that the fucking Messiah and his space-witch mom are still walking around with the same names as your day-trader friend and his personal trainer?
A spice that’s half magic/half drug? Why not?
Sand worms? Fucking let’s go, bay-bee.
A Beatle and a cartoon rabbit? Get the fuck out of here with that shit.
The Hermione Problem and the Lupin Problem: The Part Where I Rip on JK Rowling
I didn’t read any of the Harry Potter books until after I’d seen a few of the movies so I never got the experience of millions of children all around the world: seeing this name for the first time and thinking what the frick?
I did have to read a lot of Russian literature for various parts of school, so I can tell you what I would have done if I had read the books first: either completely botched it or replaced all the instances of the name with the sound of TV static.
I think this is where having a beta reader, or maybe friends and family, can come in handy. Someone who can look at the absolutely ridiculous name you’ve found/come up with, point at it, and go, ‘WHY?’
Does this mean you can’t ever name your character something that’s not ‘normal?’ Obviously not. I don’t even know what ‘normal’ means on a global scale, and also I just spent four hundred words complaining about Pauls in space. In Dune I would have preferred a name that looked like a keysmash.
If you want to put in a name that might be hard for a reader to understand pronunciation, you’ve got two options:
- Put a glossary at the end with pronunciation. This is pretty standard for any sort of long high fantasy or speculative fiction work, but might be pretty weird tacked to the end of a real world fiction novel. Especially if the only entry is this one name.
- Have the character explain how to pronounce the name, either to another character or the reader themselves. Preferably sooner than five fucking books in, Joanne.
Remus Lupin, AKA Moon Moon
I didn’t start reading the books until the Goblet of Fire movie was coming out, so when my sister took me to see Prisoner of Azkaban I went in completely blind to the story. Well, not completely. I understood the broad strokes, obviously, this was 2004 and those books and movies had already squeezed into every facet of popular culture. But I didn’t know the specifics of this particular book.
So, when the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher introduced himself as Remus Lupin, I did a double take.
I leaned over to my sister and whispered, “He’s a werewolf.”
And she looked at me in horror and whispered back, “How do you know that?!”
I didn’t fully explain until we were out of the movie because I’m generally against full conversations in the middle of a semi-crowded theater, but, yeah…
His name is Remus Lupin. Remus, a dude in Roman mythology raised by wolves, and Lupin, from lupus, which means wolf.
Dude’s name is Wolf Wolf. And he got that name a few decades before he ever became a werewolf.
There are a lot of these obvious, punny names in the books, either revealing some secret about them beforehand or describing the character’s personality. I’m not saying you can’t do stuff like this, especially in kids books, but I’m sure you can do it with a little bit more nuance. Also, let’s not lose sight of the most important fact: JK Rowling has made it clear she’s a terrible person.
Naming Conventions in Different Genres
Rule number one: the more syllables the better. Your characters should have to spend roughly four to five seconds introducing themselves. Old Western European names are best but as long as it takes longer to sing out the name than it would to order a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘n’ Frooty over at the iHop, you’re doing okay.
Rule number two: Throw out rule number one for your main character. You’re going to be writing their name roughly eighty thousand times over the span of a dozen books. Do you know how much time you can save if instead of naming him Constantaneous you just went with Con? Literal minutes. Also, it will make them stand out against all the other long-ass names.
Bonus tip: Vowels should never be where the reader will expect them.
The most important thing to remember for naming your urban fantasy character is you want something sharp and snappy. It should really walk that thin line between ‘completely average’ and ‘what the fuck did I just read.’ If you were a bartender and you saw this name, you would think, ‘huh, that’s a weird name,’ but it wouldn’t stick with you long enough to tell your significant other the next day. Nouns are good, adjectives are better. Think: Ruby Stone, Dell Courtland, Honesty Jones.
Bonus tip: Every single one of your main character’s love interests should have a name that either a) reminds the audience of how he’s actually a centuries old vampire/fairy/what have you, or b) reminds the audience how big his dick is.
You’re not actually straying too far from Urban Fantasy, here. Walk that weird-ass line. But instead of something short and snappy, you want something fun and feminine. Joyful. Unique, but relatable. Windy doesn’t get used enough, I think, go with that.
Bonus tip: Every single one of your main character’s love interests should have a name that either a) reminds the audience how rich/rural/full of turmoil he is, or b) reminds the audience how big his dick is.
There should be at least one person named Dick, but try to fit in more. As many as you can, honestly, you can never have too many spacemen named Dick.
Bonus tip: There should be at least one scene where someone calls him Richard and he goes, ‘Actually, Richard was my father. Call me Dick.’
It’s time for some fucking Scrabble! Shake up the bag, scoop some out by the handful, and just sort of let them fall where they want on the coffee table. Repeat until you get something that you can work with.
Alternatively, take a regular name and just keep changing it letter by letter. Thomas –> Toomas –> Toomus. The farther into the future your story takes place, the more letters you should change, to highlight how much society has decayed over the centuries. Any story taking place more than a thousand years in the future should feature names that are nothing more than wandering grunts.
Bonus tip: If you’re going to have alien characters, cook some spaghetti. Once it’s al dente fling it at the wall and transcribe the shapes the noodles make into a fun, catchy alien name.
And of course, the most important tip when naming your characters: