Naming the characters in my stories is one of my favorite parts of writing. I sift through names trying to find The One, I have the character try on different options for size, and finally, a name fits. It’s their name.
(It’s honestly like that scene in The Man Who Invented Christmas where Charles Dickens is trying to name his miser in A Christmas Carol. He’s pacing the room sounding out different ideas, and then at last it hits him. He speaks the word “Scrooge,” and the character comes to life.
Immensely satisfying to a writer.)
Anyway. I’m a firm believer in the power of sound and symbolism, and I could get all philosophical on you about names and words and meanings—but I’ll refrain (for the most part). That said, people sometimes express curiosity about how and why I choose certain names for my characters, so I thought I’d share a few things I consider in the naming process.
I start broad. The first thing I have to consider is the play’s time and place, especially if it’s a historical play.
The Twelve Months of Christmas, for instance, is set in New England in 1906, so no one could be named Sierra or Jaxon. For a historical drama, I usually pull up the website “Behind the Name,” my go-to naming resource, and start exploring lists of popular names in whatever time period I’m researching. Obviously, characters living in 1906 would have been born earlier, so I look at popular baby names from, say, the 1850s-90s, depending on the ages of my characters, and start gathering ideas there.
Sometimes this research immediately brings me to a name that just feels right, and I don’t necessarily consider the name’s meaning. For example, the group of schoolgirls in The Twelve Months of Christmas have names not chosen so much for their meanings as much as for their historicity and sound—names like Harriet, Ada, and Eleanor.
In my contemporary plays, I still take into account the ages of my characters as I decide what to name them, since in this day and age you don’t see many toddlers named Mildred or grandfathers named Peyton. In Christmas at The Three Bees, for instance, I researched popular baby names from the 1950s, 1980s, and the 2000s to come up with the names Janet, Heather, and Riley for a generational threesome of female characters.
2. Family names
Not only does history play a part in the “setting” of a character’s name, but family does too. Parents tend to have a naming style for their children. Some like Biblical names. Some prefer trendy. Some name their kids after family members. Some choose names all starting with the same letter.
Let’s take a giant leap to the British royal family, for example. William and Kate’s children are George, Charlotte, and Louis, right? They are not and could never have been George, Charlotte, and Leroy. That just doesn’t work. Their names all fit each other, and they fit the context of the royal family.
I take that principle into consideration when I name family members in a play. That’s how we get the three bachelor brothers Jay, Chester, and Felix in The Twelve Months of Christmas—their names fit the Victorian era, but they also (at least in my mind) all have the same distinctive style.
That idea holds true in a modern setting—for instance, in my play The Nova Theater, featuring siblings named Tristan, Camille, and Ramona. No parents would name their kids Tristan, Camille, and Rahab…or Ramona, Camille, and Todd. It’s just not right. I pictured these siblings’ parents being academic and artistic, so they gave their children unique, elegant, continental names.
And speaking of family names, I also consider how a character’s first and last name work together—both how they sound and what they might mean. Because some pairings are too complicated or just awkward together, like Arabella Bellisario or Tanner Summer. (Although I just amused myself coming up with both of those combinations, so now I wonder if I should use them in something….)
1 thought on “Morris, Mounce, and Morgenstern: How I Name Characters (Part 1)”
Delightful! I am looking forward to part two!