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            Picking a name for a fictional character in a novel is an important aspect of writing with which many authors seem to struggle. I’ve read of authors switching character names several times in mid-novel. This not only causes a great deal of backtracking and work, but suggests they haven’t defined their character—a disastrous flaw by mid-novel. Characters are what drive a story. They must be well-defined before even starting a novel.

            Fiction is by definition different than reality. Look up the name Rex Bana in the directory, and it won’t tell you much more than an address and a phone number. But in a novel you only have a limited number of words to define your character—to make readers immediately relate to him or her and your story. Therefore, the name is an important tool for describing your character. Rex, in fiction, denotes masculinity, toughness. When you envision a Rex, you see someone you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. It adds an important description and interest into the story. Best of all, it’s short and simple, easy to read and remember.

            I’ll give you an example of how I used a name to dramatically improve a story. Rex Bana is the main character in my first novel, King Slayer, published in 2004. Rex witnesses his sister’s rape and murder by a serial killer at the age of thirteen. He kills his sister’s killer, and eventually grows up to become a vigilante-style hunter of murderers. It’s an occupation that presents all sorts of moral dilemmas for Rex. But why is the name important? “Rex” denotes not only a strong male, but it literally translates from Latin to mean “king.” “Bana” translates from Anglo-Saxon to mean “slayer.” Rex Bana’s name literally means “king slayer,” or the king of slayers. And what does Rex do for a living? He excels at hunting and killing slayers, something that torments him. When Rex discovers the translation of his name, he finds his murderous fate was defined at birth; a fate he desperately seeks to escape. By picking the right name at the outset, I not only had a character description and a book title, but an entire series of novels based on Rex’s exploits and efforts to change his fate.

            What are good sources for picking names? I pick the important names of main characters from character-naming sourcebooks. They provide typical names and their English translations based on their different origins and languages. This can help both writer and reader identify with the character, genre, time period and location of the story. If you’re writing a historical romance, you might want a name in Latin or Gaelic, depending on the time period and region of the story. A World War II novel? You’ll want those harder to find German, French, Russian, or Japanese names. Writing a fantasy? Try looking up Anglo-Saxon names, biblical, or those used in ancient myths. Your local library or retail bookstore should have these sourcebooks. Baby-naming books can also provide these translations, but usually don’t provide their origin or background. More contemporary names can be found by simply looking up popular names on the Internet for the year your character was born.

            Science fiction names are more difficult. Many authors string a meaningless gaggle of letters together so the name appears futuristic or alien. I don’t use this method, because a name that’s unfamiliar to the reader is hard to read and remember. Plus, it doesn’t describe anything or help the reader relate to the character. I stuck to simple, traditional names in the science-fiction series, Soul Cage. Burt Campbell and Penelope Preston are typical American names that are easy to remember and link today (the past) with a futuristic Earth—something to which the reader can relate. For the antagonist in Soul Cage II, I used the name Benjamin Arnold, because it’s very similar to the name of an infamous Revolutionary War traitor, Benedict Arnold. A reader can immediately relate to Arnold’s evil, and the name’s reputation is a constant source of insults for Burt to fling at his enemy. It adds to the story’s conflict and drama.

            The easiest name sources are the phone book or just your memory. This works well for secondary characters in contemporary fiction. Obviously, you still want to be mindful of national origins and physical descriptions. Joe Smith is not a good name for a traditional Polynesian. Anui Kaaua is more representative. Naming characters from your memory is helpful for you, the writer, as well. When writing the coming-of-age series, Second Chance, I used name deviations and physical descriptions of many of my boyhood friends. This made it easier for me keep the many secondary characters and their physical descriptions straight in my mind.

            What if you can’t find a name that adds to your character and the story? I found that nicknames help. Jack Bucher is the main character in Second Chance. The story begins when he’s just eleven years old, and his name doesn’t add much to the story. But “Bucher” is close enough to “Butcher” that “Butcher” becomes his nickname after he gets in a fight with a bully on his first day at a new school. “Butcher” now helps the reader relate Jack to a tough-minded personality. It adds another little piece to the story.

            So what’s in a name? A great deal. Characters, and their names, should be well-defined before you even begin writing. Names can define an entire story like in King Slayer. At the very least, names should add to the story. They should help the reader envision and relate to a character by providing a physical or personality description. I like short, simple names when possible, because they’re easier for the reader to remember. They’re easier to write a million times, as well. Give character naming as much thought as you might naming your own child. Your characters are your babies.