It’s a hard choice to make. Give your character the wrong name and it could break the reader’s connection with them, with all the doom and despair which follows.
Of course, there are more important things in fiction. There is plot, style and narrative. But people form their first impressions of someone in a very short time. Tell me a character is named Algobog and already I begin to form a mental image of them…
Naming a character by genre
The genre you are writing in will go some way towards determining a character’s name. Contemporary fiction means a present-day name, no surprises there. This will also vary by location (not many named Freddy in China).
Fantasy names are generally longer or more abstract. This can take a lot of creative thinking if you want something completely original. I have no idea where Patrick Rothfuss got the name Kvothe from.
A simpler approach is to borrow from the “dead” languages. Voldemort may have Latin inspirations (vol-de-mort = flight of death). Gandalf means “wand elf” in Old Norse.
Sci-fi names tend to be shorter and a little more funky, futuristic. It can simply be a case of fitting vowel and consonant combinations together until you land on something plausible. Hariten, made that up on the spot.
Popular character names
This is the pinch. You want your reader to be able to empathise with the main character. Will you feel sympathetic towards someone named Algobog the Supreme Kaatharlek?
One method is to have a look at the most popular names for your target audience (e.g. US, UK, Kazakhstan). You can find this information online.
Harry was an excellent choice for J K Rowling, given Britain’s habit of crowning people named Harry (aka Henry). Luke in Star Wars also seemed to work.
Character names by theme
Here is a good example, Scarlett from Gone With The Wind. What do you think about a character named Scarlett? They are red. It’s the raciest of all the colours. So Scarlett is probably a loose cannon, perhaps even a little “fast” for her time.
Letting the character choose the name
There are two ways to look at this. It will tie things together if a character’s personality matches up with their name. It’s also useful to signal something to your reader via a name. In Vikingr, Ulfr is a nasty piece of work (Ulfr = wolf in Old Norse). Erikr means “alone ruler”, and it sort of makes sense. In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s name is apt for his character.
But you do not have to rely on hidden meanings. The sound of a name can give a lot away. Harsh noises like a hard A, O, F, S or T will suggest someone tough or dangerous: Severus Snape, Malfoy, Sauron, Saruman, Gandalf, Algobog.
Soft vowels paired with gentle consonants make for a very peaceful first impression: Frodo, Hermione, Elgerbeg.
If you get stuck, do not panic. Sometimes a name just feels right for a character. Other times, it’s something which grows on you. Good luck!
Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?