I’ll answer that question with another quote:
“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage” (L.M. Montgomery).
Names, despite its seemingly simplistic role in society, do have some importance, even in fiction. So how do you name your character? Names aren’t just an arrangement of letters that sound cool or unique; they have meaning, language, and culture behind them. Names are so important, that, in real life, people are discriminated by their namesake. People with foreign names, whether their ethnicity roots to there or not, have a harder time finding jobs. Before he won the election, there was a rumor that Barack Obama wasn’t even American. Even between feminine and masculine names can affect what a teen will want to learn, and not to mention the bullying a kid can go through because of their name. And it’s the parent’s choice (fault) for choosing the name for their child to live with.
However, names are no more important than choosing what color hair or skin the character has.
In my first guide (“Things you Need to Know”), I only mentioned that it had to be of the universe’s region of the character birthplace’s culture, but there can be exceptions. In Degrassi: The Next Generation, which takes place in Canada, Spinner’s sister is Chinese, but was adopted into his family. While we don’t know if it was a foreign adoption or strictly within the country, they named her Kendra instead of looking up Chinese names, but they probably had a reason. Finding the meaning to Chinese names, along with respecting the Chinese rules on how to name a child is difficult, even on the internet. So, as a slight revision, whether the child was born there or not, whether the child is still with his or her parents, or someone found him or her, name the child with something that is available to the parents, or the adopting parents, who deem fit as a name.
On a side note, I stick to what I said about your name and self-inserting (“Things you Need to Know“). Even though you’re most likely not of the region the story takes place in, unless you’re saying you moved there as part of the plot, change the sound of your name to fit into the culture. There are plenty of Japanese name translators, so I’m sure you can also find other cultures and countries to translate your name to.
The reason I say that names are no more difficult than choosing a hair color or skin color, is because they both represent the same thing: genetics and culture. Just as blonde-haired people are more probable of European descent, as people having red hair can mean they have Irish or Scottish blood. Alternatively, it could just be a random genetic quirk. Although not a lot of people think that hair color is as important as something like eye shape or skin color (unless it‘s a color like bright blue skin in a non-skittles universe) it does play a part in appropriateness. Just as African Americans can’t be redheads unless dyed, certain names won’t be appropriate. Names, while not everyone will have that original culture in them genetically, do have the same kind of history, and it will affect the character somehow.
The chosen name also reflects the person who chose the name—the parents or guardian. Are they more free-spirited and choose an unusual name, or more elegant and choose an Elizabethan name? This kind of choosing will reflect more on how the guardians raise the child than why the parents chose this origin with this meaning (if they know the meaning at all). More often than not, though, in most fiction, the story of how the name came to be is usually never told. The parents aren’t always the ones who choose the name, it could be the grandparents, a friend, or even the nurse, so if the part of the naming the character isn‘t in the story, you don‘t have to sweat about the parents too much. This goes with the nicknames as well. If there is no source of who started it, it shouldn’t matter. If the name does have an accurate source, then think of how the namer would behave, their hobbies, or acts to reflect the name that they chose.
Another problem people have about names is that the name is more like a label. To be more specific, I mean that the name turned your character into a stereotype, or an author chose a stereotype and chose a stereotypical name (and you know how I feel about stereotypes). For example, I want to write about a Goth kid, so I choose to name a boy “Bram”, like Abraham “Bram” Stoker. According to Think Baby Names.com, Bram means “bramble; a thicket of wild gorse; raven”, so by definition alone, I decide he’s going to be a Goth kid who has a sarcastic wit to and is a writer. It would be bad if I started writing the story with the character off only that. Think about it, the boy turned Goth, except the labeled stereotype is “Bram.”
In order for this to be acceptable, let me describe how his time was during his life with his name. Upon first hearing the name, Bram seems like a strong, jockey kind of name, and not to mention that his full-blooded Irish father loves hurling (the sport, not vomiting), so he tries out for the lacrosse team in late middle school, a close alternative for hurling, but some of his classmates tease him. “Hey, it’s Bram the bum. You’re too wimpy to be playing something like this. Why don’t you just go write in a corner or something?” Bram prefers to wear baggy and loose clothing and has a lean frame, but it’s because he likes running around the block with his father in the early morning, not because he isn’t strong enough. The bullying deters him from trying out. On to high school, where he learns about Bram Stoker, the teasing continues, but his English teacher refers on how good it would be to be a writer, and not just write any kind of story—it has to be dark. He finally realizes why his teachers all throughout his school life mention to him about writing. So, because of his teachers and his peers keep commenting to him about writing all through high school, he sticks with English, other writing classes, theater and art instead of continuing on in sciences or math in college even though he could if he really wanted to. The all black outfits and make-up could be a phase, short or long term—maybe even for the rest of his life, but now it is explained why he chose writing and why he felt like he should be writing and play the “goth” kid role. With enough explanation, the kid in the corner writing horror stories and wearing black and make-up isn’t just another Goth kid. He’s Bram and this is why he is the way he is.
While high school is all about trying out phases, the “Goth” thing would be acceptable, but it shouldn’t be everything. The audience would have to know what the character is really like, and not just from the stereotype. If Bram had been “purely” Goth from the beginning, we wouldn’t know that he does enjoy sports, especially hurling and lacrosse, and that he does enjoy other activities. People can like things over others, from hobbies to the style of clothes, thus other people may label them, but the character should have many facets that should be explored through the act of storytelling. Stereotypes don’t make the character, just as names shouldn‘t either, even if the character unintentionally molds themselves to fit their name.
In real life, people also mold themselves to fit their name, so this does happen. That’s why most characters whose names are like Raven are attracted to the occult, or why Alfred likes math, or why Priscilla is snobby. So go ahead and choose those “stereotypical” names if you want. The real test is how the make the characters unique despite the overused names like Sakura or Michael and so on and so forth.
So, in which order do you make a character? Do you think of the name first and make the character fit it, or do you make the character and choose a name after you develop the personality? It doesn’t matter because, either way, after you choose the name, there’s going to be some revision of how you think the name would affect the character later. All creators are different with different methods of deciding different factors. If it works for you, it works, but let me point some stuff out anyway.
Personally, and this is my dirty little secret, I think of the character first before even the plot. My mind starts with, “Oh, wouldn’t it be interesting to write about a character that has this kind of physical/personality/mental quirk?” and then thinks about a plot that goes with the character. If a character has this kind of quirk, what kind of activities, or jobs would this character have, which branches off to what other kinds of characters would he or she meet, which branches further to what kinds of problems could their be for the character. This takes all of only a minute at most, which is how I end up having too many plot-bunnies. The descriptions and names are the last thing I think about, and I choose those at random.
If you look in my Deviant Art gallery, I have a two-part tutorial on how I create the character’s looks. It just takes too much time to deliberately choose every single thing about a character, including names, which is why I don’t blame authors who base a character’s looks off themselves or other people or deliberately find names with certain meanings. I’m not saying that looks and names aren’t important—they are, but just in a different way.
Unfortunately, people who hunt for Mary-Sues do put looks and the name to the forefront of their minds, even though there isn‘t a consistent rule about them also. I see comments about not using Japanese names, but what if the character is Japanese? They also discourage plain names for not being original or memorable, but they discourage highly unusual names because it makes the character too unique. It’s as if they can’t make up their minds or want authors to avoid names with the letters Q, X, Y, or Z in them.
I don’t choose names completely at random, so if something doesn’t fit, I don’t list it in the first place. First, I choose the origin of the person, and where the story is based. For example, a full-blooded American who was born in, and maybe raised in, Vietnam, the character is allowed to have a Vietnamese name as well as European English speaking countries, especially if the parents are fluent in Vietnamese or just want their child to fit in.
My basic rules of thumb when it comes to names in general are:
- Since I mostly write fan fiction in a Japanese based setting, if the story takes place in Japan, and the person is Japanese, stick to Japanese only (similar to most other Asian countries except Russia and the Middle East). Japanese originated from Chinese, so Chinese names can also work.
- If the character or setting is American or English-based European countries, any name in that region is fine, and because English has many roots, Italian, Spanish, German, French, Latin, Greek and Russian are also accepted (basically all of Europe).
- If the character is Spanish speaking, then Spanish, Italian, and Latin are very acceptable, along with English-to-Spanish translated names. For example, Richard would become Ricardo.
- Any country along with their older roots can be grouped together. For example, Irish, Celtic, Gaelic, and Scottish can be grouped together just as Russian, Slavic and Czech or German and Norse can.
- Any set of countries that were once one country, like India and Pakistan.
- A culture can have names from the surrounding different cultures’ names.
- If the parents are passionate about another country, and are fluent in the language, any country would be acceptable despite origin and/or weird reactions from other people (this would just add another facet to your character due to constant questions or bullying).
There are a couple other points to think about when it comes to names, but I think you can come up with more rules. And yes, whether or not Isabella “Bella” Swan from Twilight is actually Italian, she can keep her name.
The only origins of names that stump me are African and Native American names. I don’t generally write settings in Africa, so haven’t done research on the history there, plus I haven’t found a list with many African names, but if I did, I would stick with the specific country/tribe just to be safe (this goes with any other country in general). In African-American history, however, I know in the slavery days the white owners would make their slaves give up their African names and force other names upon them—making sure it wasn’t a “white” name. Greek and Roman deity names were popular for them in that time, but there were also place names and days of the week. It was rare that owners let the slaves keep their name. Generations later, as the slaves started families and were allowed to name their own children, some named their children more after their grandparents than their parents, and because many slaves converted to Christianity, biblical names were also chosen. Once slavery ended, many dropped their slave name and chose another, again, mostly biblical. In the 1960’s, African-Americans started looking for their roots when naming their children, and chose native names. They also put a spin on names, like choosing the root of a name and then changed it somehow. This trend of inventing names still goes strong even today.
The only reason I’m stumped with Native American names is because there are no lists of accurate names. All of those baby names sites that have Sioux, Cherokee, Apache, Blackfoot and the rest of the list of tribes are usually false, so I ignore the section completely and stick with the above rules if I can. To be frank, I’m not even completely sure how Native American tribes form names.
In some tribes, such as Mohegan, I know that they are given descriptive names when they are born, and then their names could change as they grow older through adolescence, and adulthood according to their knowledge and experiences. They change as the individual changes, and these names are usually tied with nature and their tribe and family. Other than that, it’s still pretty obscure to me.
After I limit to what specific origin I want the name to be based on my personal rules, I limit the list further by choosing a letter, and then the specific name. I’ve already thought of the basic history and personality of the character in mind, so once the name is chosen, I only tweak the character to suit the name. Does he or she like the name? How does the name sound in general? Pretty, plain, elegant, strong? How do others treat him or her because of the name? Has he or she ever looked up the definition, and if so, does it affect the character?
Picking on Meyer’s Isabella “Bella” Swan again, it isn’t her name that irks me; it’s she as the overall character. To start the example, the fact that Isabella doesn’t have a direct source or story to how she got her name, the free-spirited Renee and introverted, bashful, Charlie can be off the hook for not reflecting the name that was chosen. The nickname, however, can be pondered about because Bella’s source is, in fact, Renee, but because Renee’s so wild and flighty, she could have tried out several nicknames and Isabella just seemed to respond to Bella more. Bella, on the other hand, doesn’t act like a normal girl with a name like hers.
Upon merely hearing the name “Bella” (since she demands to be called by her Italian nickname instead of her English Isabella), I think of church bells or chime bells, very soothing and beautiful to hear, and that’s exactly how she’s treated during the books. The people fawn over her even though she just arrived to Forks, the girls get jealous or gossip to her to make friends, and yet Bella constantly ignores them and belittles herself, calling herself plain, or boring. You would think being practically called beautiful every time someone says her name would give her more self-respect and confidence, but no. She's either very stubborn to just have her way no matter how ridiculous it is, which is repeatedly shown in other ways (sex, childbirth, doing something extremely dangerous for a hallucination, and a bunch of other trivial acts), or she has some sort of mental disorder which causes low self-esteem, mood swings and suicide attempts. Even though Bella was trying to pull off the "he's my only one" shtick, suicide attempt usually means that something is seriously wrong. Yet, no psychiatrists are called, no anti-depressants, no nothing, as if she's perfectly fine, when any other character would probably be on suicide watch, in a mental hospital, or have a 24/7 escort.
Anyway, let’s move on to the rest of the tips for forming names. Depending on the culture’s tradition, you have to be careful to choose a certain number of names. In many canon media, a majority of the characters go by a single name where the full name isn’t known, like Undertaker in Black Butler going with the profession rather than an actual name, or Professor Palladium in Winx Club. Therefore, even if the culture and the rules of names are established, you’re allowed to choose just one name if that’s the only name that’s going to be used.
This also begs the question, if fan fiction writers are going write about one of these characters without a full name, much less a first name, how would someone go about writing him or her? It would probably be more preferable if you can just keep calling the character by the name that is given, but it would be understandable if you just can’t avoid the first name situation forever. Giving the character a first name probably wouldn’t be a good idea, but if you do, do choose an appropriate name with a meaning similar to the character (if until the real name is revealed in which you would edit it afterwards). Alternatively, you can make up a nickname that is like an inside joke in which it doesn‘t have to be accurate, or even be related to the actual name if it is later revealed, but it has a story behind it.
Some Asian countries only have a first name and a family/clan/last name, so there is no need to choose a middle initial at all. Similarly, some people just choose not to give a middle name to their child even if they could, and some decide to give two middle names. In a Latino culture, family names are tacked on to the next generation, so the character’s name could actually be as long as a list.
If the setting is in the United States, then names like Bobby-Joe or Suzy-Anne would be acceptable since it mostly happens there. You could even name a character Mary-Sue and she wouldn’t be a literal Mary-Sue. Sometimes parents can’t make up their mind, so they combine the names like Mary-Margret did in Once Upon a Time.
Another trend is to capitalize a letter in the middle of a name, like McKenzie, or AnnaBelle, or MaryAnne. This is also appropriate in the US; although it isn‘t done so often.
The various spellings of names are another matter for a couple different reasons. The main concern is when the usual name is spelled differently, like Lindsay is spelled Lyndsie. If the parent is like Renee, a free-spirited or unusual person, then yes, it’s plausible. Parents still do that, even in real life (and some admit to regretting it). Therefore, if that’s the case, it’s not a big deal, so move on. Another reason, is that the usual name can be officially spelled different ways because it has branches in different origins, so a name that may be of unusual spelling, may actually be normal, just in another culture.
Sometimes names are spelled with additional symbols such as with an apostrophe, which is sometimes needed for aiding making an appropriate sound while reading, but it is mostly due to the person being a foreigner and their names could have been pronounced differently without it. A lot of languages, such as Arabic, Turkish, and even fictional languages like Klingon, names included, contain glottal pauses within words and names, so in order to show that there should be a pause in the pronunciation without having to leave a space, and confusing others on whether the name after the space is a middle or last name, they put an apostrophe in the English translation. Hyphens create the opposite effect, rushing instead of pausing, forcing you to read the two sections together as one. Another example of having apostrophes in names is in DC comic’s Martian Manhunter’s human identity as J’onn J‘onnzz (pronounced as John Jones), along with other martians who have taken the names B’enn B’urnzz, B’rett, Cay’an, D’kay D’razz, Ma’alefa’ak, and M’gann M’orzz.
It’s one thing, a parent respelling an English name to include apostrophes when they are truly unneeded (unless you‘re a martian of course), it’s another when it really is needed to improve the pronunciation to the original foreign sound.
The last complaint that I can think of when it comes to the names of characters, is when they are named after gems, rocks, plants, or are ordinary descriptive words. Go ahead and name characters after gems, rocks, and plants, it’s fine! It’s been going on for centuries, and there is no viable reason to stop it now. This goes as well as descriptive names like Harmony, Makepeace or Precious. I know some parents who’ve named their children after famous celebrities or fictional characters. It’s completely fine, I promise you. As long as you follow a set of cultural rules, and have the character have some kind of developmental “bond” with their name, whether they like it or not.
What if you can’t find the meanings to foreign names? That’s a big issue, because if you don’t know anything about the country origin, let alone the name, it’ll be harder to decide how the character would develop further in that little tweak. Let’s take Japan as an easy-to-reach example. -Suke, -taro, and -maru are all masculine or strong sounding. -Suke seems more casual as exemplified in characters like Sagara Sanosuke (Rurouni Kenshin), a fight-for-hire street brawler. The way I’ve been seeing it, -taro makes whatever name that it’s connected to it seem stronger in strength, like Yamada Hanataro from Bleach. Despite that, “Hana” means “flower” Hanataro proves his strength and masculinity by helping Ichigo and several others on different occasions, despite acting scared and nervous all the time. -Maru is typically given to nobles in royal families, or elegant-like people, like Sesshomaru from Inuyasha. -Ko and -e, on the other hand are quite feminine. With -ko meaning “child”, it would seem that anyone that had names such as Nanako or Atsuko acted quite childish, or was extremely petite, and those with -e seemed to just have a mother-like guidance, like Shizue from Shisho-san to Issho. So really, you only need to know part of the names to get the gist of the feel for the name’s inner meaning.
It’s that simple molding of that tiny part of them, which gives the characters another flavor. A rose wouldn’t sound as appealing if it was named skunk cabbage, just as it would sound like Romeo married an old bitter hag named Gertrude (no offense to Gertrude reading this). If that were the case, Shakespeare would have probably only changed the title of his play. While I still stand that names aren’t a big deal, they do carry some weight of importance, so a few conscious choices would give your story another added connection to your audience.
“A name can't begin to encompass the sum of all her parts. But that's the magic of names, isn't it? That the complex, contradictory individuals we are can be called up complete and whole in another mind through the simple sorcery of a name” (Charles de Lint).