What’s in a name? Well, if you want to create a memorable character, then a name is the first thing you want to consider. Names often are the first basis of character development. There are many types of names–ethnic names (not stereotypical names), unique/heroic names (Luke Skywalker, Jon Snow or Tyrion Lannister).
The key to naming characters lies in knowing what you want the characters to represent and what type of story you’re telling. Is it fantasy or science fiction–you probably want a unique/heroic name that makes your character stand out. Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen works. Are you writing conventional fiction? Elizabeth, Sarah or Alice might work for a contemporary women’s fiction story.
Dated versus Timeless Names: The time period for your story matters. Does the story take place in the 1950s? Bette or Peggy might work. Neither works for a story that takes places in 2015 (unless the character is a senior citizen). In 2015, Bette and Peggy are dated. As is George and Wilfred. In the same way there are dated names, there are also eternally young names. I can’t image an 80-year-old woman named Tiffany, Britney or Ashley.
Timeless Names: There is a difference between a dated/aged name and a timeless name. For example: Wilfred is dated but Alexander, John and Michael are timeless. Catherine, Sarah and Elizabeth (long form of Bette) are timeless, too. Too common/generic for you? That’s where you get your Katniss’s and Daenerys’s (beware of trendy names).
Ethnic Names: An ethnic name is one that does not belong to the majority culture in your society. An Hawaiian name would be ethnic in the United States (majority of names come from Anglo and European tradition). When choosing an “ethnic” name, consider this. Is it for a character who’s not the same race/ethnicity as you– for example: white author, black/African-American protagonist. If so, then avoid stereotypes and mockery. Naming a black character Sheniqua comes across as mockery. On the other hand, Latoya works fine.
Gender Ambiguity: Some names are naturally gender neutral: Skylar, Tracy, Taylor, etc. Other names are gender specific. Try as I might, I cannot accept “Blake, James or Ryan” as feminine. On the other hand, I think Ashley works as a male name (pop culture reference: Ashley Wilkes (male) from Gone with the Wind, 1939).
Conclusion: Names should follow all these rules. Often the best stories do. If you are looking for some character names, there are many name databases that are easily accessible on the Internet and elsewhere i.e. the public library.
Do you have a naming convention you follow when you’re dreaming up a character in your head for your next story? Let me know.
Mellisha McKenzie @mckenziemell