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Submitted on
June 17, 2012
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First of all, I freely admit that what I say isn't gospel. I am a total amateur at art and writing. I've learned everything that I know via the internet and a few drawing books. It's just that I appreciate all of the tutorials here on dA that have helped me out, and I want to put a little bit of my own methods back in.

First things first; I have a quick, but essential assignment for you.  Read the following three sentences below, out loud:

A weird name does not a unique character make.
A weird name does not a memorable character make.
A weird name does not a good character make.

Say it.  Say it twice.  Say it three times if you must.  I wish someone had made me do it years ago.  You must remember that the reason that I write these tutorials isn't because my writing is super-duper-perfect now.  It's because it used to be absolutely ATROCIOUS, just plain awful.  I've made most, if not all of the mistakes that I talk about, and I had to learn the hard way how to fix them.  Here, I hope to teach you in a few minutes what took me years to learn.


So what is a name?  Technically put, it's the series of symbols that allows your reader to identify which character your piece is referring to.  Emotionally put, it's where readers direct their affection and connection to your character.  There are names that make my heart skip a beat when I see or hear them, not because they're anything special, but because those people/characters mean a whole lot to me.  A name is the essence of a character's soul and being!  It's the purest form of character expression! So names are super-important, right?!

Well… yes and no.  Yes, a name can provide a facet into which you can cram all sorts of symbolism and surprisingly detailed information about a character.  But at the same time, you can do those same things through other methods.  To be honest, a name may be the LEAST useful or important part of a character.  When I name mine, it's usually extremely late in the character creation process and very open to sudden change, unless I have a specific meaning that I want to put into it.  Names are tools, not character traits.  Now that I'm climbing off of my soapbox (sorry), let's get started and I'll give you some concepts to consider when naming that special character.

Structure: Length and Pronunciation

When naming your character, think of their name as a balancing scale.  On one side, you have a heavy rock, which represents your audience's tolerance level (a stupid/pretentious name will irritate them).  On the other side, you have your character's full name (first, middles, last, titles).  They are perfectly balanced, and you want to keep them as close to balancing as possible.  It is ok if the rock weighs more than the name, but not if the name is more than the rock.  To put it simply, it is ok if the audience's tolerance is higher than the super-duper specialness of the name.  You don't want to go past what the audience can tolerate.  I'll use this concept several times throughout this tutorial because a good name is all about balance between its parts so that they can work together as a whole.

Length is one thing to consider when you make a name.  How many names will your character have?  Two or three names are standard, a first and a last or a first, middle, and last.  These structures make the name lighter.  More names usually add a lot of weight, since most people don't do this without a very good reason.  

Implausible: Robert Reginald Wallace Duncan Emerson Nicholas White
Plausible: Robert Duncan White

However, certain cultures, like the Hispanic culture, sometimes tend to give their children multiple middle names.  If your character belongs to such a culture, these names add only a tiny bit of weight that can easily be balanced out in other areas.  Doing this is not just an easy fix; you need to know why each name is there and why it is exactly as it is (are they passed down, family names, etc?).  Research the actual naming customs.  Just don't go too overboard with the number or expect the reader to remember them all, a reader can only do so much.

Plausible: Javier Raymundo Roberto Fernandez, King Charles James Robert Williams III

Another length to watch is within each name itself.  Long names add weight and short names detract weight.  A reader will have an easier time reading and remembering Annie than Annnsolviarialsa (a name I just made up).  Fewer syllables are typically better.  Popular names like Alexandria, Alexander, Maxwell, William, and Elizabeth get a pass because they usually have a shorter nickname (Lexi, Alex, Max, Will, Bill, Liza) and because they are familiar in America and Europe.  If you want to make one of your character's names long, it is a good idea to keep the rest on the short side or (if it's a first name) have a common nickname for it.  Also, keep the pronunciation of the name in mind.  A reader tends to get frustrated if a name is hard to pronounce, since that makes it harder to say the name in their mind as they read or when they say it out loud.  Generally, simpler is better.

Implausible: Anastasia Somprasova Mullivanovna
Plausible: Anna Silvia Mullivanovna, Anastasia Silvia Musser, Anna Somprasova Musser

Structure: Additional Notes on the Nickname

Nicknames are useful tools that can take away a lot of "weight" from a name, but should be used with great care, lest improper use make them add a lot of weight.
  1. Common nicknames are easy to use and hardly stretch tolerance.  Calling someone named Nicholas "Nick" is highly familiar, and it probably won't even register in the mind of the reader.  Alex for Alexander, Ellie for Eleanor, this type is easy and simple to use.  Just don't abuse it too much, not everyone will have a name like this (Jack, Rachael, Silvia, Roger).
  2. Some people prefer their middle name to their first name.  This is highly uncommon, so use this extremely sparingly.   I've only ever known two people like this.  Usually the first name in this case is outdated, like Bertrand or Ernest.  They pick their middle name, which is short (often just one syllable) and nothing extremely wacky in this case) for both ease and/or to keep from being teased.  These people are usually pretty pissed off that their parents named them that, and will almost never mention their real name on their own.  The only way other people find out is when they have to sign official documents, are talking to family that still calls them their real name, or are being referred to by someone who doesn't know them but knows their name (hello, substitute teachers!).  Keep it subtle, and it should go fine.
  3. Many families have "pet names" for their family members as a sign of affection.  These nicknames are typically those of endearment or cuteness.  Grandparents also sometimes have special nicknames that are easier to say than Grandpa or Grandma, usually created by their young grandchildren.  Used within the family, these have no weight.
  4. "Wacky" nicknames can be difficult to pull off in a story, again because they're not very common.  Calling someone "Sparks" or "Speedy" can add a lot of "weight" because we as the audience are probably unfamiliar with this situation.  First of all, it's a good idea to keep the nickname one syllable long.  This makes it easier to say than the real name.  Second, make sure that the nickname makes a lot of sense.  A character has to really EARN that nickname, don't just half-ass it.  Third, consider the person who gave the character their nickname.  Does it make sense that this person feels that they have the right to rename someone?  Is your character the type of person that would allow this renaming to happen to them?  Use this extremely sparingly or not at all.

Plain Jane vs Crazy Mazie:  The Attributes of the Plain and Strange Name Types

When I began digital painting, I wasn't very good.  My colors were always off, and I couldn't understand why they never looked as colorful as other artists'.  Then, I received some advice that changed my entire outlook on colors: I was only using bright, highly saturated, garish colors.  Pieces that were more colorful than mine used a lot of duller colors in conjunction with the brighter ones.  In short, they used balance.

The same concept can be said to apply to names.  Weird names are bright and highly saturated and plain names are dull.  Many times, I'll see so many weird names in a story that it stretches my suspension of disbelief and makes me roll my eyes.  Grab a book near you that you really, really, like (nothing from another culture, it must be from your own).  How many of those names are plain and how many are strange?  Odds are that a lot more than you thought are going to be plain.  I just did it myself with a book that I absolutely adore, and the names I got were John, David, and Amy (super-special bonus points if you can guess the book).  Plain names are a tool, as are weird names, and it is a good idea to learn how to use them.

Plain names:
  • Make your character more of an "everyman"
  • Make your character more relatable
  • Make the audience believe in your world more, since they are familiar with its naming customs
  • Downplay your character's super-duper specialness (makes the audience happier)

Weird names:
  • Make the name a bit more memorable (not always though)
  • Inform on the culture or time period and can make it seem strange or surreal
  • Give insight into the minds of the parents who named the character
  • Play up your character's super-duper specialness (can irritate the audience if you're not careful)

As you can see, plain names have a lot of good qualities to them because your audience will be more familiar with them.  Your character is more like them and is therefore more relatable and believable.  Weird names can be memorable and can give insight into the culture that the character lives in (especially fantasy cultures).  Also know that characters don't pick their own names.  Therefore, a name says much more about the parents of the character instead of the character themselves.  Keep this in mind when thinking that a name says a lot about a certain character.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that weird names may irritate the audience.  If you go too far, your audience WILL notice and will roll their eyes.  An exceedingly weird name says "Hey, look at me! I'm so unique!" when the author should be able to convey that through good storytelling instead.  But that's not to say that you can't use weird names at all! How boring would that be?

One of my favorite things to do is to save the weird name for the surname.  It's less imposing and up front than the first name, and there are traditionally much stranger surnames floating around than first names.  You can get a good balance in this way; you can be a bit creative, but lose very little relatability and therefore add very little "weight" to the scale.

Symbolism in Names: An Unexpected Minefield

Let me go ahead and be up front about instances when people use symbolism in names: most of the time, it's done absolutely awfully.  Either it is far too obvious or is done for little reason.  

Naming a character "Raven" to symbolize her dark traumatic soul is so obvious that it is a little disgusting.  The same thing is true of naming them after a real-life person.  Naming your super-duper-dark-special character Poe will not make them as awesome as the real guy was.  Your readers are smarter than all of this; it should take a little work to figure out what the name symbolizes.  There's also another thing that bothers me.  Behold, an exchange that makes me want to facepalm:

Me:  So what is your character's name?

Bad Namer:  Her name is Bella! I named her that because it means beautiful in Italian!

Me:  So why did you name her that then?  Is her family Italian?  Do you use her to prove a point about beauty or to show a way that beauty plays a role in the theme in your story?

Bad Namer:  Um… well, I guess she might be Italian or something, I dunno…

Me:  *facepalm*

Look, there's nothing wrong at all with just liking a name and using it.  But don't explain the symbolism behind the name if you're not going to DO anything with it.  If you explore the role of beauty in our society with a character that is a beautiful girl named Bella, go right ahead, you seem to know what you are doing.  The character of Bella in this story represents beauty, so her symbolic name is fitting.  But don't go spouting symbolism and making yourself look all deep and stuff if you're not really going to be deep in the story.  If I had a nickel for every time I've read a name that was just "flower" or "beautiful" or something like that in another language, I would be able to buy the world and make it illegal to do that ever again.  If you just like the name, just say so and don't pretend that there's anything more behind it.  To sum it up, if you don't know why you made a name symbolic, don't say that it is symbolic.

Fun Fact: Awful symbolism also makes pandas cry.  And this is symbolic of my symbolic tears of sad symbolic symbolism.

(Whoops, how did I end up back here on the soapbox?  Sorry about that, that happens when I start talking about a pet peeve.  I'd better get down from here…).

Keeping it Consistent

I shouldn't have to include this bit, but make sure that the names that you are choosing are appropriate for the place, time, race, and culture for the family.  You won't have a white girl named Sakura in middle-class America (unless you're writing it in a comedic fashion).  Do a little research and remember: the census will become one of your very best friends.

Own That Name

Remember that your character doesn't get to pick their birth name.  Also remember that the world is a cruel, cruel place and that hell is small children.  Kids with weird names (for their society) will likely be mocked for them, and may come to resent their super-cool name.  Figure out how a weird name will affect your character, and don't be afraid to poke fun at it!  Names have lifetime effects, especially the weird ones.  Don't shirk your responsibilities if that's the route that you intend to go.


Of course, not every rule will apply to you.  There are too many genres, too many ideas, and too many individual cases for all of these to apply to everyone.  Think of these as strong suggestions.  If you feel you have a good reason to break these, go right ahead.  Rules are there to be broken, but only by those who understand the rules more than anyone else.  Most of all, relax.  You can do it.  I'm willing to bet that if you're the kind who cares enough about improvement to read a five page rant on names, you'll end up being a good enough writer that you can make a character that is more than superficially interesting.  And with that I'll leave you with my usual ending disclaimer:

Never, ever forget: I might be wrong. I try not to be, but nobody's perfect. Art is one giant matter of opinion. Feel totally free to disagree or to only utilize the bits that you agree with. If you found this helpful, disagree with me, or just prefer another method to my own, feel free to tell me about it in the comments. After all, I'm here to learn too.
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dragoeniex Featured By Owner Nov 28, 2014
I took a creative writing class in college last semester for fun. You have no idea how disappointed I was when I found out that half the class had never heard of and could not pronounce the name "Amos." (Used for an older-ish mentor character.) D8 Sure it's not common nowadays, but... come on! Surely they've at least seen the Famous Amos cookies in vending machines.

These are all very nice tips to keep in mind when naming a character. An unusual name has to be warranted and/or rare, in my opinion.

(My most grievous example is having a character called Jared in an Eastern culture, while his brother is named Long. It seemed to fit, though. And it came about because his brother, when small, couldn't say "Jau Ret." ... I still only use him in personal works that don't get posted for public to view. ^^; )
AlishaTano Featured By Owner Jul 22, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Wow, this is a really helpful list! A few of my Fanfiction characters have unusual names for their cultures, but they were immigrated. For example...a character set in 19'th center England is actually named Sakura. (Oh great, now I'm seriously worrying if it's even plausible, even though she's supposed to have an English nickname...)
Sweating a little...

For a Star Wars OC of mine, I got the correct culture (Indian) completely by chance... I wanted the name "Alisha," partially because of its meaning "brave" and "noble", and originally just because I liked the simplicity.
StarlaAndGilbird Featured By Owner Mar 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Are special first names like Aloe and Mist okay if they're not too frequent?
Souleyo Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2014
This tutorial is very useful thank you!
It's helped me create some neat characters for my English Exam

But it makes me somewhat confused about my own characters name, since it's not a regular name although I do have an explanation for it
WonHitWonder Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
What's the character's name?
AircatSkylion Featured By Owner Jan 9, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Found this tutorial really interesting, especially as I often stray into bad naming habits myself. (These are usually caused by my obsession with typfaces; I'll rarely pick a name that I don't like the look of in the typeface I'm writing in, or deliberately pick one that has a certain letter or letter combination I like in it). 

WonHitWonder Featured By Owner Jan 10, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I get what you mean about typefaces, I've lost entire afternoons browsing fonts online ;)
AircatSkylion Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
My family just have to get used to me going 'Oh look, Bembo' and 'doesn't that Garamond look nice?' XD
WonHitWonder Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I once had a moral dilemma when a friend of mine designed a shirt using Comic Sans as the font.
AircatSkylion Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Sounds difficult to deal with. Most of my friends are aware of my Comic Sans hate, and if they aren't I let them know. 
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