Peggy Bechko on The Art & Craft of Character Naming

by Peggy Bechko

Character names!

They’re more important than most people readers and viewers think, as pretty much every writer in every genre and type of writing knows. If you, as a writer, DON’T know that, then it’s time to step back and ponder.

“Bond, James Bond.” Who hasn’t read and/or heard that line? Now, what if he had been named Harold Schwartz by Ian Fleming? Not quite the same.

How about Harry Potter? It’s pretty darn English, easy to remember and it has a certain strength and stability to the name. Fitting for a Wizard.

Names are important. They’re important for the screenwriter and the novelist, the short story writer, and the play write. Say any name out loud and instantly preconceptions spring to mind in the reader, the watcher of a movie and even the writer him or herself.

Names are many things. They can reflect culture, faith, family backgrounds (surely you know someone who carries a ‘family’ name as a middle name) and more.

Names can even play a role in forming a personality and they can have impacts on interactions. Katherine can be Katy, Kit, Kate, Cat, Kitten, or some other variation.

And, usually, the person with the name will have ‘professional’ acquaintances who perhaps know her as Katherine, a mother who calls her Kit, maybe a boyfriend who calls her Cat, and friends who know her as Katy.

I’m Peggy. Many think it’s a derivative of Margaret but in my case I was named Peggy. I usually go by Peggy. Some call me Peg but I don’t much care for it so it’s usually people who don’t know me well. If I were a character, and others called me Peg, it would mean they weren’t as close to me as they probably thought.

Whether writing a screen script or something else, a name helps define the character, expose the real personality. It can be fun searching for just the right name to put that character’s personality across or it can be a sort of hell.

Sometimes we just kind of go blank. One resource I check in on is, here it comes – The Social Security Administration’s records of baby names at https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/

If you’re writing something with a Victorian Era flavor you might check out http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~poindexterfamily/genealogy/OldNames.html

If it’s something SciFi/Fantasy, quirky, or you just need something really unusual you can try http://www.nexi.com/fun/rw/index.html

Nexi.Com, by the way, offers a cool bonus: “…if you want to generate some new girl’s names, feed it a list of girl’s names, and it will take them apart and discover how to make girl’s names, then come up with a list of words that are very similar, but probably never before seen.”

What makes that cooler, if you think about it for a minute, is that plainly that also would apply to any words you’d want to put into the generator.

All this is great, and I especially enjoy researching names and checking out the etymology. There are lots of name search engines out there and lots of baby name books and resources. Poke around and you’ll find an endless stream.

The KEY, though, is getting the right name for the right character and that said, being willing to change a name if it just isn’t right…and the ability to recognize, perhaps half way through, when a name isn’t right.

There’s no magic to choosing that name. It’s up to you. Just dig in, try to settle on realistic names that fit, don’t have everyone’s names begin with the same first letter, and be open to those few times when a story may demand an exceptional name.

Try to stay historically and geographically accurate. Don’t be afraid to use good ol’ stand-bys like Joe and John and Katherine, or even Margaret. And, in general, steer away from gender-neutral names as they just complicate things. Keeping those few things in mind just makes everything that much more real.

Name your characters like they’re your best friends. For many of us, readers and viewers and writers, they are!


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.

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