Okay. Your character has a face and an energy type! This is exciting stuff! You’re well on your way.
Next up, not surprisingly, your character needs a NAME.
Now, sure, you could just give him or her your favorite name, that one that was a little too wild to use on any actual children or say out loud all the time but you know would be just too cool in print. You could. Maybe. But I’d like to convince you that the best choice is a name that perfectly fits the character.
We do this with real children. In fact, if you’re currently trying to decide on a name for your upcoming bundle of joy, this info I’m about to share might be even more invaluable. I certainly wish I’d known, for example, that the letter Z signifies “aggression/conflict” before I gave a certain child of mine a name that starts with it—except that, of course, it is exactly the right name for that aggressive little kid. And luckily the other letters in his name have to do with thinking and wisdom. Fingers crossed he grows into those soon haha.
Believe it or not, characters can embody their names just as much—whether or not you understand the name in advance. For example, with my Peter Pan retelling, I chose to stick with the names Wendy and Peter, and it was amazing how much personality came with those names that I didn’t realize ahead of time. I “crafted” their characters years before learning anything about nomenology, and yet the names are dead on.
The book I now rely on—and absolutely suggest every writer (or parent naming a baby) should get—is called The Hidden Truth of Your Name. It contains a full 8.5×11″ page for each of the 718 common names it analyzes! For example, check out these snippets below from the page about Wendy. It describes details I thought I’d just made up for the story, but it turns out they were part of the package deal of her name:
“Nobody deliberately annoys Wendy. She is a lovely woman on the whole, but when she is angry, most people would rather be somewhere else! … [She has] a strong imagination and the ability to creatively use that imagination to produce practical ideas. … She longs to be free, but she is cautious. … Living in a foreign culture might help her to examine her personal values and discard worn-out belief systems. In the end, Wendy has the rune of joy to fill her days with moments of great satisfaction.”
So now, at the start of a new novel, of course I consulted this book as I chose my characters’ names to get a heads up about what to expect, and here’s how I suggest figuring out names in the first place.
1. Explore Your Hunches
You might have a name you’re already inclined toward, and if your hunch is that it fits your character, you’re probably right. Or you might have a hunch of what letter their name needs to start with or the number of syllables or the style of their name. Respect the hunch! Follow where it leads.
For example, you could use baby-naming resources in print or on the web to start exploring your hunch. One book I’ve loved and recommend is The Baby Name Wizard, which sorts names into dozens of helpful styles:
African, African-American, Androgynous, Antique Charm, Bell Tones, Biblical, Brisk & Breezy, Celtic, Charms & Graces, Country & Western, English, The -ens, Exotic Traditionals, Fanciful, French, German/Dutch, Greek, Guys & Dolls, Greek, Italian, Jewish, Lacy & Lissome, Ladies & Gentlemen, Last Names First, Latino/Latina, Little Darlings, Long Gone, Mid-century, Modern Meanings, Muslim, Mythological, Namesakes, New Classics, Nickname-proof, Nicknames, Place-names, Porch Sitters, Saints, Scandinavian, ’70s–’80s, Shakespearean, Slavic, Solid Citizens, Surfer Sixties, Timeless, and Why Not?
By glancing through the style lists that I thought best fit my new female character’s face and energy type, I began to jot down names that might work for her. I looked up the basic meanings as I went to see what other names each one led to.
Play with styles and basic meanings as much as you can. Have fun with this! Make it a game, as if you’re on a scavenger hunt.
2. Spot Key Traits
With the on-going list for my new character, I began circling certain names that resonated with me most, and I noticed that they all had a certain feel/rhythm and certain letters, such as I and V. As I showed you above with the letter Z, letters matter! So if you’re feeling inclined toward certain ones, make note of that. Try other similar names. Narrow down your list.
You might even use these key traits to play with name generators like this one at babynamewizard.com that lets you input starting letter, ending letter, maximum letters etc to see if it can give you more possibilities.
3. Analyze the Best Matches
This is the part where you’re going to want your own copy of The Hidden Truth of Your Name to really go in deep, but I’ll walk you through the basics. In addition to the 718 names with full-page descriptions, the book also explains the process of decoding any name you want—even made-up names.
The idea is to translate the letters of the name into a system that designates meaning for each symbol. The book uses Hebrew, runes, and numerology but notes that there are others too.
The charts in the book give lots more info than this, but here is a sampling:
|Aleph||A||thinker||intellectual, logical, organized|
|Beth||B, V||domestic||quick-witted, communication|
|Gimel||C, G, J||travel||creativity, the supernatural|
|Daleth||D||opportunity||love, health issues|
|Heh||E, H||observer/control||strong-willed, adventurer|
|Vau||U, V, W||choice||conservative, steady, stubborn|
|Zayin||Z||aggression/conflict||curious, quick-witted, dualistic|
|Cheth||Ch||defensive||sensitive, private, clever|
|Teth||T||revenge||confident, creative, courageous|
|Yod||I, J, Y||energy||practical, analytical, service-oriented|
|Kaph||K||wise||jovial, good fortune|
|Lamed||L||driven/just||attractive, refined, balanced|
|Mem||M||caring||emotional, caring, creative|
|Nun||N||introspective||mysterious, intense, transforming|
|Samech||S||supportive||enthusiastic, optimistic, explorer|
|Ayin||O, Oo, Ou||business mind/athletic||organized, responsible, goal-setting|
|Peh||P, F||talkative/social||warlike, physically attractive|
|Tzaddi||X, Tz||crafty/dogged||innovative, quirky, humanitarian|
|Qoph||Q||thinker (emotional)||transcendent, understanding, intuitive|
|Resh||R||thinker (rational)||paternal, generous|
|Shin||Sh||judgmental/drive||energetic, inventive, rash|
|Tau||T, Th||honest/altruistic||physical, practical, homely|
The book gives a similar chart for runes. By looking at the characteristics of each letter, you start to see the complexities of each individual name. Maybe try it on your own name and see what you think!
For me (Nikki), my name is (N) introspective + (I) energy + (K) wise + (K) wise + (I) energy, and I can definitely see how it fits me. Everything I do starts with introspection, and while I can have plenty of energy, I refuse to unleash it until I feel like I know the wisest course of action.
Can you see how much insight that one aspect can give you about your character’s name?
But there’s plenty more to be had. This analysis only scratches the surface of the Hebrew, and I’ll give you a similar taste with numbers. With numerology, the idea is to change each letter into a number 1–9 and look at the significance of each number and the significance of the whole name added together.
1: leader—independent, ambitious, assertive, initiating
2: mediator—sensitive, diplomatic, intuitive, visionary
3: communicator—creative, entertaining, optimistic, vivacious
4: teacher—responsible, idealistic, intellectual, straightforward
5: adventurer—progressive, freedom-loving, compassionate, versatile
6: nurturer—caretaking, serving, realisitc, loyal
7: faith seeker—investigative, analytical, observant, perfectionist
8: executive—goal-oriented, organized, managerial, inspirational
9: humanitarian—generous, magnetic, artistic, honorable
The name Wendy, for example, would be (W)5+(E)5+(N)5+(D)4+(Y)7=26, and then you can reduce 26 to 2+6 = 8. Since the first three letters are 5, we can look at the meanings above and see that Wendy has a lot of adventurer leading her personality but tempered by the 4 and 7 it adds up to an executive quality (8).
Her nickname, Dee, adds up (D)4+(E)5+(E)5=14=1+4 = 5, so we see that Wendy is even more adventurous with her close friends who call her Dee.
Give it a try! And leave a comment about any insights you gain for your own name or baby name or characters. It’s fun to see where all of this leads.
(Next up: figuring out your character’s astrology and birth date, working backwards!)