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I'm writing a fantasy novel. The story takes place in England (1900's) No matter how much I research I'm unable to move forward in naming my characters. For example, When we look at all the characters JK Rowling created, their names are so unique and suit to their personalities.

My question is Are there any methods to name my characters? Should the naming be based on the period when the story takes place? Should I first develop their personalities and then name them accordingly. Please explain.

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You should write your story first, using any names that come to mind. The important thing is writing and completing a draft of your story to determine as quickly as you can if the story is something you are invested in.

How Our Brains Work

Getting stuck on these types of details are a distraction to the work at hand (writing) and I encourage you to ignore these types of things as much as possible. It is a normal part of how the brain works to distract a person from the writing because there are often other subconscious things at play.
This is a part of the normal creative process of the tug of war that occurs between the creative side and the critic and it is important later, but for now should be put off.

These types of things often plague writers because they are actually thinking:

  • "Am I a good enough writer?"
  • "Will my story be good? -- I don't want to write it out and then find it is not good."

Great Thing About Fantasy

The best thing about fantasy is that it's totally open. After you write your story, you can make up names that have subtle meanings or are related to other things or are entirely made up based on an entire mythology that you create.

As Alexander Graham Bell once said,

"There are no rules here! We are trying to accomplish something."

Character Names Often Emerge As You Write

For now, just use any name that comes to you quickly and later as you get a sense of who the character is you will probably find that the character's name will emerge from that anyways.

Examine Published Examples

You can also search Amazon for Fantasy novels (or go to your local library). Read the first few pages and see what the names are like to get a feel for what is in use and currently being published.

  • I completely disagree with your advice to begin writing without knowing character names. Names are a fundamental characteristic of a fictional character. And before you write you must know who your characters are. If you don't have the names of your protagonists, you don't understand them enough to write about them. – Also, if a story is set in 1900s England, names must fit the times, otherwise readers will be irriated. Most native English speakers are very familiar with history and fiction of that era and will have expectations about naming conventions. – user34178 Dec 7 '18 at 21:36
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    @user57423 Characters can develop while the story is being written. You don't need to know your characters well when you start writing. It's nice if you do, since if nothing else it saves rewriting time and effort. – David Thornley Dec 7 '18 at 21:39
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Whether a name pops into my head, or I am stuck for one, I use a book, "The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook". It gives a lot of names, their country of origin, and something brief about what the names meant (originally). Or if nobody knows what they mean, the legend they came from or something like that.

I want my characters to have distinct names, seldom sound-alike or rhyming names unless there is a particular plot purpose for that, and I like their names to begin with different letters, if that is possible, or at minimum different first syllables.

Part of this is in case you do an audio-book of your story; you don't want people confusing "Gale" and "Gail".

I try to imagine my characters as much as I can first (without writing anything down, however), and I pick their names before I start writing. At least my MC, I often leave other names until later, and always leave side-character names until I get to the need for them.

To a great extent, it is not the "great name" that makes the character, but the character that makes the name.

You can see that in company names; "IBM" has a cachet but it is really just "International Business Machines", a very unimaginative name for a company. The same goes for AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph), the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), etc. The cachet for these names is about the legendary deeds they have done, it is not in the unimaginative, utilitarian names themselves. A similar thing holds for many character names. "Harry Potter" is an intentionally mundane name. But the personality, adventures, skills and intelligence of the character (and the success of the books) creates the air of reverence, respect and affection for it.

  • Governments in general probably aren't renowned for imagination in naming things, agencies or otherwise. :) – a CVn Dec 7 '18 at 16:02
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    @aCVn Precisely, but the names gather meaning and emotional weight nonetheless. the FBI, the CIA, the White House, are all pretty generic, even Niagra Falls. The same can hold for fictional characters; a generic name takes on meaning when that character's adventures become interesting and their traits (intelligence, humor, skill, courage, or a lack of any of those) stand out. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 7 '18 at 16:15
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Normally, character names should reasonably fit the time and place where the story is set. It would be very disconcerting to have a story set in ancient Rome where the centurion is named "Bill Smith", etc.

I think many authors overdo it on trying to make a character name "fit" the character. In real life, serial killers rarely have names like "Vicious McKiller". They tend to have very ordinary names, like "Ted Bundy" or "Robert Yates".

Okay, some names seem more appropriate for a certain type of character than others. I'd be surprised if I heard on the news that the winner of the Nobel prize in physics this year was named Bambi, for example. I've seen some studies that say that this sort of intuition about names is in fact valid, that people do indeed tend to have professions that match our intuition about their names. Perhaps a person's name influences his life choices, or it influences people's expectations which then influences his life choices. But regardless of the extent to which this sort of intuition reflects real life, in fiction we generally don't want to be jarring -- unless our goal is to be jarring. So I'd avoid naming the brilliant physicist Bambi or naming the mild-mannered librarian Bruno unless you're trying to make a point of it.

As others have said, I'd certainly avoid getting hung up on this. If you're just starting out writing a story, and the first thing you do is spend 40 hours trying to come up with just the right name for one of your characters, I'd say stop, pick any remotely plausible name, and move on. If you start out calling him "Roger" and then halfway through the story, for whatever reason, you decide that "George" would be a better name, fine, change it. I'd assume that in this day and age you're writing using a word processor, so it shouldn't be that big a deal to do a search-and-replace to find all occurrences of his name and change it.

In general, I'd say don't get hung up on any one detail, especially early in the writing process. If you're not sure about some detail, make something up and move on. If later you realize this doesn't work -- that scene can't be set in Paris because if the hero had ever been to France, he would surely know that, etc -- than go back and change it.

  • Your third paragraph: or certain names are more common among certain demographics, and those demographics also match career choices etc. I can't imagine two professors naming their child 'Bambi'. I can imagine the child of two professors growing up to become a prominent scientist. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Dec 7 '18 at 21:48
  • @Galastel Sure. My couple of suggestions there weren't intended to be exhaustive. There are probably other plausible theories that I haven't thought of. – Jay Dec 7 '18 at 21:54
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I like to be semi-subversive in that most characters have non-meaningful names for the plot and anything out-of-universe, but they should mean something in-universe. Namely, they should fit the cultures and social status of the character.

As with the example of Harry Potter, JK Rowling sets up two sets of lives; muggles and wizards. With muggles, they generally have generic British names, and in the Dursleys' case, they go for something that sounds particularly low-class and unremarkable.

Contrast this with the wizarding families' names, which have a clear bent towards the fantastical and empathic. Malfoy sounds like it's evil (Mal), Slytherin is an obvious pun on slithering, Weasley sounds... well, weaselly. Therefore, in-universe, there's a clear distinction between the down-to-earth surnames like Potter, Granger, and Dursley, and the over-the-top wizard families.

In terms of how it works, separate the sounds of fictional surnames and think about how it makes you feel. I'll admit, there have been times where I've created characters and given them a blatantly meaningful name (that fits with the world), and honestly, it can be fun. Examples:

  • Landon Shearwater: A taciturn king that acts as stable, unmoving ground with which the decadent, oftentimes idiotic royal court and kingdom swirls around. He is land, on sheer water. Landon Shearwater. He also governs from a coastal city, so his name being associated with a seabird has an in-universe reason.
  • Kel'nas Sinhelios: A gloomy high elven lord whose family has died one by one around him. He is highly religious and poetic as a response to his many tragedies. His first name is a pun on elo (Hebrew for God) while his surname is a pun on sans helios, or 'without the sun'. In other words, a religious man whose sun has abandoned him.
  • Ma of Manabhuk: An embodiment of the deadly sin Sloth, whose primary abilities involve inducing deadly, suicidal amounts of apathy within people. 'Ma ma' is Japanese for 'so-so' or 'whatever', the verbal equivalent of apathy.

Depending on the region of the world you're writing, you can get really creative; as long as it's part of the lexicon of the cultures you've created, it should work. A name, like everything, has a context. In ancient Israel, Gomer would be considered a feminine name. In the here and now it sounds like a bootleg version of the main character of the Simpsons.

Think about these things, and maybe the answer will come to you. Or maybe I've just rambled for no reason. We'll see.

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For me, if I can't think of a good name for a character (or for that matter any other world element), I hold off on naming it. Instead, I give it a temporary name. Anything that is reasonably easy to type and remember, yet not too likely to show up in the text otherwise, works. The first priority for me here is to not lose momentum just because I can't think of a name for something at the spur of the moment. That's what editing is for.

One good tip I saw somewhere (but I have since forgotten where) is to mark such temporary names with a typeable character which won't appear elsewhere, and which you use consistently for that purpose. For example, you might mark them with an = sign as either a prefix or a suffix.

For me, I'll often turn to the NATO phonetic alphabet for ideas if I'm pressed for a name for something that is in-progress and for which I need a name right now. (Not least of which because it's a good 26 distinct words which I have memorized already.) Not all of those words are good names, and which ones actually work will depend on the story you're writing, but many of them are workable. You can probably easily get a dozen decent temporary names out of those.

Combining those two, while writing and needing a name right off the bat, I might type =Juliett and keep writing. Afterwards, while editing, I'll search for all occurences of = which will point me to the fact that I've used Juliett as a temporary name, and I'll also search for that to find all places where I've used it as a name. That makes giving (say) the character its final name little more than an exercise in search-and-replace, once I know what to name them, but doesn't put the pressure on me to name them at the moment they are first introduced.

Another thing I'll often do is to, while reading, maintain a running list of name ideas. This doesn't need to be anything fancy, and could just be a text file or a physical notebook. In it, I jot down whatever idea I see for a name, a brief note about its context and any meaning attached to it, and where I saw it (so I can go back and look it up again if necessary). When I need a name, I'll bring that list out and browse through it until I spot something that fits. I might end up using that name as-is, or I might end up tweaking it, but the name ideas list is a go-to resource when I need a name for something, be it a character, a country, a planet, or a species, and can spare the time to browse through the list.

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For minor characters I will google names for a particular region. I needed some Turkish characters, so googled Turkish names. I found several that were quite appealing and chose them.

Major characters seem to name themselves. I meet them as people who know who they are and where they think they are going. When I met my gorgeous kidnapper, I knew she was Morgan Stuart, smart midwestern gal with several black belts but little finesse in interpersonal relationships.

Before I started my current work, I spent two months naming the main character and his sister. I was looking for a name that sounded and looked real but could be menacing. Once I found that surname, I gave him a rather common given name that breaks down into multiple components so that different characters can call him different things at different times.

Write your story, your characters will tell you who they are.

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It's a good idea to decide early on on a naming scheme. That is, do you want names that sound like they belong to a particular time and place? Particular times and places (plural) for various groups within your story? Do you want names that are almost real, but not quite? (For example Eddart, from G.R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is almost, but not quite, Edward.) Do you want names that are very clearly not RL names (e.g. Severus Snape)? Do you want names that give a subtle hint about something pertaining to the character?

The reason you want to have a framework early on is twofold: first, within some frame of reference it's easier to pick a name than within the infinite possibilities of letter combinations that could potentially be names. Second, when you have such a frame, the names sound like they all "belong together" - they're all from the same world. Having a mix of regular and irregular names can work (the trope is known as Aerith and Bob), but only if it's a deliberate choice.

As for particular names, they come eventually. Don't be afraid to start with something that more or less fits your intention, and then change it later if you find something better. For example, Strider (Aragorn) was originally named Trotter. And Frodo was originally Bingo.

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