We've all been there, biting our nails, looking around the room at items for inspirations on giving something or someone a name. Maybe inspiration strikes as you scramble letters within your line of sight or as you browse through baby name websites. Sometimes you look up words in foreign languages. I've even had my 2-year-old pick five random letters for me to work with. However you go about finding names, it's hard and there's no single tried and true method. I've yet to meet an author who didn't struggle finding names. Especially for characters. You want something original, yet memorable. Something that suits their personality and hasn't been overused. Creative juices are flowing until you meet up with that new character named……(four hours later)……..
I know how it feels to want to have a character whose name is clever and catchy and as rugged as he is but without seeming like a jerk. You find it. Paul. It's perfect. You get to typing. Then you remember. Your sister's ex was named Paul. All of a sudden the name is off limits and now you don't even want it because turns out Paul was a jerk.
Back to the drawing board.
I also find myself recycling names. I don't know why but all of my female extras end up being named Jennifer, Jessica, or Ashley. Of all the names in the world and I keep using the same three.
Then you find the perfect first name and find yourself asking do they need a middle name? Real people have middle names so why wouldn't they have a middle name? Should they be named after their father, or should their mom hold a grudge and name him after HER father? Suddenly you're trapped in family drama of people you're just barely introducing because you want all your characters to be well thought through with their own back stories. Before you can even name the cashier at the grocery store you have to draw his family tree back three generations. At what point does too much become too much?
So, you start soliciting opinions from family, friends, strangers on twitter, whomever. But nothing fits Nothing is right. By and by your brilliant plans for what would definitely become your NY Times bestseller sink out of sight all because you couldn't name that main character's ex wife's best friend.
Russell? No that won't do because my character is a bit of a sleaze ball and my cousin Russell would take it personally. Rachel? No because this Rachel is nice and that one Rachel from the swim team in high school was a total brat. If I have to use the name Rachel it will be for the bratty girl. But then you remember all the nice Rachel's that you knew.
Next you invent names or change the spelling. Jason will now be Jaysen. Amber will now be Aymbur. No real people have these names, at least you never met them, so you have no worries. Except now your normal people have weird names that no one will ever spell correctly.
Non-writers don't get it. "What's in a name?" "Who cares what they're named?"
You lose your cool. "You don't understand! What's in a name? Everything. EVERYTHING!"
Deep breaths. Count to ten.
Names are important. The pressure is on. There's definitely a power in names, so while you try to find or invent the perfect name for all your characters, here are a few pointers.
1- Don't let names become writers block.
When the words are flowing through your fingers too fast for you to even stop for a bathroom break, by all means, don't let a new characters name stop you. Type a filler. Type NEWGIRL or UGLYNOSEGUY or XX or whatever, but type it and move on with your story.
2- Watch out for filler names- you might become attached.
If your character is named X, you probably won't end up keeping it, but let's just pretend that you had to name seven dwarfs, and let's just say that you couldn't think of names right off the bat so you called them after their other traits. Sleepy. Grumpy. Sneezy. Happy. I'm not saying that's how these guys got named but it's possible. I've had a few characters with filler names that ended up sticking whether for better or for worse. I've even done this with book titles and once I get attached to a name, it becomes quite difficult for me to detach and reattach to another, better title.
3- Ease off on the pressure.
What's in a name after all? Yes, it's cool if your serial-murderer has a middle name that means danger in Czech and doubles as a homophone for his preferred weapon, but not every single name has to have deep hidden symbolism to Greek gods and patron saints all while exacting a vengeance you have on the bully from middle school. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…" Well, the rose would smell the same and it wouldn't change much if it switched names with the daisy or the lily, but can you imagine if someone brought you a bouquet of "bullthistles" or "tumbleweeds"? It wouldn't matter so much how beautiful the flower smelled if it had a name like "Crappetals." There are usually lots of wrong names, but here are also certainly multiple right names. I don't believe in soul mate names for characters. If Harry Potter were named Roger McIntire, we would still love him. Even if Roger in grade school ate his erasers.
4- Don't go crazy.
Please, and this is especially for you high fantasy and science fiction authors, ease off on the names. When the main characters are named Zebizchulagainch and Aeniaepillainae and they come from planet Zinnaquieth and Arboineug, readers detach from your characters. At that point it doesn't matter how likeable your characters are, we are too exhausted from trying to sound out the names to do any actual reading. I'm all for short names and/or nicknames. Imagine people are meeting together in a book club to discuss your book and characters. If half the time is spent discussing the pronunciation of names, you have a problem.
Anyway, enjoy the journey, enjoy the writing, and may your muses never leave you alone.