The importance of researching character names

Choosing a name for a fictional character should entail as much time, care, thought, and attention as naming a child. Though you can always change it later if you grow to dislike it or discover it’s inaccurate, it can be very difficult to suddenly start thinking of that character by an entirely new name.

For perhaps a year or so after I finally officially changed the name of my character Amy to Lyubov (Lyuba), I mentally couldn’t help but still think of her as Amy. I created her as a preteen, began writing the first book in earnest at thirteen, and knew her as Amy till I was 31. The Russian translation of Amy was serendipitously perfect for her, however.

What kinds of things should be taken into consideration?

1. Birth year. This applies to contemporary fiction as well as historical. You can’t assume the names you’re familiar with always existed, or were common on girls vs. boys. It’s one thing for a few characters born in the early 20th century to have names like Amanda, Jason, and Jessica, but when you give the entire cast names like that, it smacks of predating naming trends.

Awhile ago, I read a photo essay about birth in each decade from the 1900s till today, with the hypothetical mom given the #1 female name of those decades. The writers didn’t realise they should’ve gone back 20-30 years for those names; e.g., the 1970s mom would much more likely be Linda or Barbara than Jennifer, the 1990s mom would be Jennifer instead of Hannah, and the 21st century mom would be Jessica instead of Sophia.

If you’ve never encountered or heard of anyone with that name in that age range, it’s probably anachronistic. Always check to make sure it existed, and work in a line or two about how unusual it is.

2. Linguistic accuracy. It was so embarrassing to read a short story with a Japanese character who had the surname Wang. Was he adopted by Chinese parents?

As upsetting as it was to be raked over the coals by people on a writing message board in 2011 re: the Western names I gave my Russian characters, it helped me to realise I needed to change them. “Translating” names is culturally arrogant and severely outdated.

Leon Uris was also guilty of this in Mila 18, about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I don’t understand how he could do so much historical research yet give all these Polish characters non-Polish names! Andrei should be Andrzej; Alexander should be Aleksander, nickname Alek; Paul should be Paweł; Ana should have two Ns; Stephan should be Stefan; Sylvia should be Sylwia; Susan should be Zuzanna; and Simon should be Szymon. I also doubt anyone in Poland uses the spelling Rachael. And Rachael and Deborah’s surname should be Bronska, not Bronski.

3. Overall name trends among that demographic. The type of names chosen by wealthy old money families in 1900 won’t be the same as those preferred by poor farmsteaders in the Ozarks in 1880.

4. Many names currently popular for girls were once exclusively male. Ashley, Taylor, Jordan, Courtney, Evelyn, Alexis, et al.

5. People in the past tended to be much more conservative with names. It was quite surprising to find one branch of my family tree where the kids were given names like Oliver, Albert, Lavinia, Cornelia, and Rebecca, instead of John, Mary, Elizabeth, William, and Anne.

6. Don’t make symbolism too obvious. E.g., instead of the surname Goodfellow or Bonhomme, why not find a name whose meaning includes the word “good,” “friend,” or “help”?

7. While many people defy their names’ associations, it’s sensible to chose something that conveys a certain image. E.g., you probably associate different kinds of names with studious people, popular kids, artists, and poor people in the Ozarks. You don’t have to use a clichéd, stereotyped name to do this.

8. Don’t gut-load your cast with Top 100 names. In real life, families and friends tend to have a mix of popular, trendy, classic, unusual, and old-fashioned names. If everyone has a super-popular name, your story will date very quickly.

9. Don’t get too obscure or difficult to pronounce. Using lots of tongue-twisting, rare names seems like showing off your research or how passionate you are about that culture. You can also find nicknames. E.g., my character Mieczysław goes by Mieszko.

And speaking of, I’m long overdue to get back to the pronunciation guide I started a few years ago and put into my drafts folder! It explains how to pronounce letters with diacritical marks in various languages, and combination letters like the Russian ZH, the Hungarian CS, and the Polish SZ.

10. Nothing wrong with simple, common names, but I prefer names that are more than just “there” for important characters. Readers are more likely to remember a distinctive name like Octavia, Ammiel, Justine, or Leopold than Casey, Terry, El, or Bob.

One thought on “The importance of researching character names

  1. On Polish Stephens/Stefans:

    Or even Szczepan? Edith Nesbit got that right when she wrote about Mr Szczepanski [Shepansky was an OK phonetic transcription for an English-medium reader].

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