Picking character names: how research can help us

namesIn a couple of recent Facebook discussion groups, the topic of how to name characters came up. My general feeling is that you should choose your character’s names the same way you’d choose a name for your child. Give it some thought. This impacts lives.

If we go with my model,  and look at characters the way we look at naming real people, we have lots of research to look at.  Amazingly, a lot of people have examined how people’s names impact their lives. Here are some interesting findings (including links to articles about the findings).

  • Names are our first clue about people. David Figlio, a name researcher, spoke at length with Live Science about what names say in this article.   One of the more interesting things Figlio said, was this: “We’re hardwired to try to figure out in a heartbeat whether or not we want to trust somebody, whether we want to run from somebody.”   This is why character names are important. Whenever you come up with a character name, you want to tap into that hardwire.
  • Names impact how people view a person. “The impact of names comes from how people expect to see you,” says Professor James Bruning from Ohio University in this article. Names tend to indicate something as simple as gender and can tell about ethnic background as well as parental background (we all assume children named Moonbeam had hippies for parents).  In the same article, Bruning notes that students with Asian names have a leg up when searching for jobs in science and math fields, because there’s a stereotype that they’re good at math and science.
  • Names link to culture. Like Bruning mentioned, names can tell you ethnicity. Culturally, we know what names fit our culture and what names done. John and Emma would be Western names. Petr, is probably Eastern European, (different from Peter, which could be either European, American, even Australian). Carlos is going to be assumed to have Latin heritage, perhaps.  And, for people whose character background is important, a character name that suggests that can be important and require research. This article notes that the Ashanti people are very influenced by the day of the week. Their child’s first name starts with the same letter as the name of the day they were born on.  If you know things like this, it can make naming characters a really fun endeavor, as you get to work in so much of their background in something so simple as a first name.
  • Names can suggest a career path. Along those same lines, a study of the names of 1,000 twin girls, found that girls with more feminine sounding names, such as Anna or Emma, were less likely to go into science and tech fields than girls named such as Ashley or Lauren.  Linguists say the ladder names sound less feminine. Girls with girly names tended to go into humanities subjects much more often.
  • Names can hinder. Figlio, our researcher who said we look for names to make snap decisions about people, noted that teachers looked at names, and if it appeared to be the kind they associated with low income, uneducated people, they would not expect much parental involvement and have lower expectations for the students. That’s powerful.
  • Names can help.  Researchers discovered that people who had surnames that started with letters at the beginning of the alphabet had more success than those whose names were at the end o the alphabet. The belief was that this happened because children were seated by surnames, As, Bs, Cs, up front and the later in the alphabet, the further back you sat. So, these kids up front probably could see and hear better, goof off less and therefore had an optimal chance of learning well. Nobel prize winners were also more likely to come from beginning alphabet surnames. British researcher Richard Wiseman theorized was because people subconsciously view the top of the list as the best, and as entries are organized alphabetically, winners were getting a subconscious bump.

So, when you’re figuring out your character names, keep these things in mind.

Here’s one fun link: a literary what-if.  This article explores what some great literary characters were almost named.

Finally, any naming advice you have to offer? I’d love to hear your thoughts on naming!


About RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist who now writes fiction. She's reported for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, as well as the smaller publications Education Technology News and Campus Crime. She has two published novels, Life First and Second Life and blogs for Indies Unlimited and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. For exclusive content and first looks at her new work, sign up for the newsletter at http://rjcrayton.com/subscribe.
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8 Responses to Picking character names: how research can help us

  1. Jeri says:

    I love using name websites to research character names. It’s also fun to search top census names by decade. I’m stopping by via Indies Unlimited, and I’ve added your blog to my RSS reader.

    • RJ Crayton says:

      Thanks for the follow. And the census site is definitely a fun place to look for names, especially if you’re working with historical time periods.

  2. Excellent and interesting post! Thanks! From IU 🙂

  3. Janet says:

    The name “Peeta” struck me right away as having that intention. I thought it was a play on the name Peter and the bakery item!

    Thanks for the post, RJ. Interesting, as always.

  4. Janet says:

    In JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, there are some great examples of names evoking a sense of a character before we even know anything about them : Malfoy (“mal” means bad in French); Voldemort (“mort” means death in Old French, from which we get the word “mortician”); Harry Potter, an ordinary name; Dudley, you immediately think of a “loser” or “dud.” The list goes on and on.

    I always look up the meaning of a name before I use it for a character.

    • RJ Crayton says:

      I completely agree. Rowling’s names are completely evocative. The Malfoys are great examples. Draco immediately makes you think of draconian. Narcissa and Lucius for parents. Even Petunia and Lily are great names. The flower names clearly link them, but the names give completely opposite impressions that fit the characters.

      Suzanne Collins did a great thing with her character of Peeta. I read the entire book, loves it, and it wasn’t until I was telling someone about it that I realized the baker’s son was essentially named Pita. Changing the spelling allowed it to fit without making it seem hokey while reading.

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