The first of thing that most of us receive, many even before we are born, is one of the most important features of our lives: our name. Despite the fact that most of us will bear those titles until our death, our names normally do not have much to do with us. We may be named in memory of past relatives; living relatives; after characters in books, television shows, and movies; or simply given a name because our parents think it is pretty. Even if we are named after we are born, it is not as if we have much of a personality, as a little infant; many names mean “the dark,” “the fair,” “the beautiful,” or something so simple as “born on a Tuesday.” While we may later pick up nicknames or honorifics, for a good while we are simply known by whatever name our parents saw fit to give us, whether it “fits” our personalities or not.
So if generation after generation can feel confident that they are giving a good name to child before knowing what they are going to act like, do, or even look like in their lives, a writer coming to the table should have the easiest time of all naming a character, right? After all, we generally have more information than any parent: we often know their personality, their looks, their secrets, achievements and downfalls. With that much information, how can we fail with coming up with a good, descriptive name that fits our character like a glove?
I do not know about other writers, but in this case I think I always end up at the roadblock of Too Much Information. I have spent an unreasonable amount of time sorting through BehindtheName.com, desperately searching for that one, perfect name for my character. There are so many things to consider: region, time period, uniqueness, readability, meaning — oh, and occasionally, actually considering what their parents would have named them in the first place. There is a pressure to balance so much on a name: you want it to be interesting enough to be memorable to a reader, common enough they can pronounce it, and unique enough that they will not be mistaking your character for someone else’s. The entire process can be downright stressful.
I have had characters whose stories I have been developing for years, some even for a decade (no promise of a quality base there, now; I was eleven), that have existed entirely without names. When I have written them, instead of pausing and struggling with a name, I assign them a letter. N still runs a tavern with her love interest T and her nephew L; S and O still work and flirt at the bar. Other times they end up with nicknames: in my current project, a lot of my notes reference RH for a redhead, Child for a little girl, and Evil for the villain (I have managed to give RH and Evil names by this point, but Child is still out of luck). Others end up with the first name that comes to mind because I dread sitting down and puzzling out the best, most proper name for the character. It has gotten to the point where naming a character is one of the things I only do when I sit down and force myself.
There are those who are experts at naming their characters. Having grown up during the Harry Potter craze, there are plenty of names I will not forget: Severus Snape, Sirius Black, and Remus Lupin to name a few. If you look up each name, you find great tie-ins to each character (spoilers herein, if you’ve somehow missed the crazy). Severus is the Latin word for “stern,” which fits the professor’s strict, bullying behavior. In the case of Sirius Black, the name becomes more of a pun: Sirius is the name of the brightest star in the sky, called the “Dog Star.” Sirius can turn, at will, into a giant black dog. In a similar manner, the name of Remus Lupin refers to his werewolf nature: Lupin is a play off of “lupine,” a word meaning “Characteristic of or resembling a wolf” (thefreedictionary.com), while Remus is the name of a mythological figure said to have been cared for by a she-wolf as a baby. These clever, descriptive names set the bar high for anyone writing modern fantasy.
If we want to peek at an even higher bar, we can look at my favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien not only made-up excellent, memorable names for his characters (for the most part; I think it takes a true geek to appreciate the name “Nelyafinwë Maitimo,” especially if one considers that he was called Maedhros most of the time and Russandol on a few occasions); he created entire languages in order to give form and meaning to his character’s names. Taking my previous complicated example, we see that Nelyafinwë means “Finwë the third” (as his grandfather was Finwë), while Maitimo means “well-shaped one” in reference to his attractiveness. Maedhros is a translation of Maitimo into one of Tolkien’s other self-created languages. Russandol is a nickname given to him by his brothers, which means “copper-top,” in reference to his red-hair. Not only that, but it is pointed out with the word epessë; not only did Tolkien give his characters nicknames, but he decided to make up a word specifically for all his nicknames.
Now, we cannot all by J.K. Rowling, or, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien even when it comes to simply naming our characters. But I know that every time I sit down, pondering a character and deciding whether to gingerly bestow a name onto their image, I will stop and think of those two authors, shake my head, and wish I could get away with calling everyone “Bob.”