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Win the character name game in style: 11 ways to dream up an original, effective name. Pt. 2

Great Character Names, Part Two: Methods 4 through 6

This part two of a series on choosing great character names, breaking the topic into three bite-sized chunks.  To get the whole picture, check Part One here.

Think of super names for your characters and win the race on characterization at the starter’s gate. Your hero’s essential traits will strike readers before a single word is uttered.

Let’s get right to the next three tactics to sharpen up your characters through smart naming:

4. Evocative names

“aptronyms”

Han Solo. A great appropriate name – or aptronym – for this independent, self-reliant buccaneer. Even if Han actually does have a partner and technically does not go it solo. It echoes Napoleon Solo, the man from U.N.C.L.E, with the short first name, the word solo looms large, at 2/3 of the whole name.

The aptronym, that is, a name that is especially apt for a person’s character or profession, stands out as the most common type of interesting character name. Reconsider the names Sarah Suckling, Clark Kent and Peter Parker, in Part One of this series. You probably get some idea or their character just from hearing the names. Sarah Suckling creates – intentionally! – a very negative impression. Clark Kent, which begins and ends with hard consonants, invokes a solid, strong character with traditional, Anglo-Saxon values. Peter Parker begins and “middles” with relatively strong consonant sounds, but ends with softer r sounds. In keeping with this, Peter has strong values, but also a sensitive side.  Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes implies refinement and intellect. The first sound, sh, suggests the hush of covert investigation.

More examples include the Bond women:

  • Bonita,
  • Fiona Volpe
  • Kissy Suzuki
  • Pussy Galore
  • Plenty O’Toole

And more. Some have a sexual or romantic meaning: Bonita, Mary Goodnight, Kissy Suzuki. Note that the least sexily named of these, Mary Goodnight, Bond never manages to bed. Fittingly, she has the first name of a virgin, and her last name sounds more like a not-tonight-I-have-a-headache sort of moniker. But on the sexier side, let’s not forget Chew Mee. Others sound dangerous, like Fiona Volpe, whose job was to lure men to their deaths. In contrast, Patricia Fearing had to be rescued by Bond.

Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore. Honor Blackman, because it is real name not an imaginary – character – name, proves that great monikers are not necessarily unrealistic. Her first name could be an aptronym – an apt name – and her last name “black-man” is its opposite, the inaptronym or inappropriate name, since she is a white woman.

Note that the most blatantly evocative names originate from the more humorous Bond films. Subtler names appeared when moviemakers went for a more dramatic effect. Good character names should match the genre of your story for humorous or dramatic or subtle effect.

Consider these evocative names:

  • Vince Majestyk, played by Charles Bronson in Mr. Majestyk
    How different this film would have been with a different name, like Mr. Weiner.
  • Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane
    He sounds rich.
  • Snake Plissken in Escape From New York
    Here we not only have the reptile name, but the sibilance ss in the surname. Perfect for Snake’s sneering insouciance.
  • Buckaroo Banzai in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
    This wonderfully whimsical name (which is also alliterative, just to make sure) sets up just the right offbeat expectation for this off-center all-time cult favorite with elements of comedy and satire.
  • Darth Vader
    Till the prequels came out, we didn’t know what the heck this name meant, but it implied menace. “Darth” sounds like “death” and “Vader” sounds like “invader.”
  • Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly, full of bawdy innuendo, whose name may be a pun on “quick lay”, though “quick” also had the meaning of “alive”, so it may imply “lively”, which also commonly had a sexual connotation.

These are not a rarity in fiction at all. In fact, have found too many to list.

Think of dynamite names for your characters and win the battle for characterization at the reader’s first glimpse of you character. Your hero’s essential traits will hit readers in the face before she even opens her mouth.

“Inaptronyms”

Above we covered aptronyms, when a name clearly suits a character, but what their opposite, the inaptronym? (I’m not making these up.)  This refers to a character whose name stands in sharp contrast to her personality.

Some examples:

  • Mr. Big, Zootopia
    He is an arctic shrew, no taller than 3-4 inches.
  • Little John, Robin Hood
    His real name is John Little, but he’s actually a huge fellow.
  • The Ancient One, Doctor Strange
    She looks no more than thirty.
  • The suicidal Happy Franks, The Impostors
  • Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, The Fifth Element
    Jean-Baptiste was a Christian saint, as for Emmanuel, well, it is another name for Jesus.
    Thing is, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg is an insane and callous weapons magnate with a fetish for “creative” destruction.
  • Captain Murderer from Snuff
    He’s a smuggler.
  • Mike Stoker, Emergency!
    Stokers kept fires burning in places like metal foundries and steamships. Mike is a firefighter, and puts them out.
  • John Singer, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.
    He’s a deaf mute.
  • Two more great character names

    Cartoon names: Judy Hopps and Mr. Big. “Gram-mama taught me respect, determination, and above all else, the importance of family. She was the whole cannoli.”

    Captain Keene, Horatio Hornblower
    Not at all keen (meaning enthusiastic), the good captain is an old and tired gentleman who keeps coughing and breathing heavily, who barely manages to captain his ship, preferring to make gnomic, sarcastic, sometimes bitter, asides.

  • Lucky, Waiting for Godot
    He suffers the most abuse in the play. However, maybe is secretly lucky because, unlike the others, is not looking forward to anything, and will not be disappointed.

See from this list that such names can be given either flippantly, or with deeper irony.

As a side note, you can use this, and all of these methods to name other things, as well. Charming is a town in Sons of Anarchy – with a long history of gang violence. Prague is a novel about Budapest.

In real life, knew a man called Adam Eve. So referencing historical and literary names is not unrealistic.

But avoid overkill

Go ahead and use names like Ralph Kramden (whose bulky frame is “crammed in” to his driver’s uniform and also into his small apartment) or Holden Caulfield (who wants to “hold on” to childhood), but avoid names that sound like porn stars or romance heroes unless you write in those genres.

Bottom line:

If you are hesitant to give your character an evocative name, if you find it trite or obvious, try an Inaptronym. Call the surgeon who saves your protagonist Dr. Slaughter. Or name an ugly character Mr. Kiss. Or give him cold sores.

Your readers will give you credit for irony.

5. Modern-sounding names:

Zachary Quinto as Skylar from Heroes. Using a modern name is a way to get people to take notice of you character.

Modern sounding names can be used either as aptronyms or inaptronyms, but merit a section of their own.

First let’s see some examples, listed here with the years these names became popular:

  • Liam, 1967
  • Mia, 1964
  • Harper, 2004
  • Madison 1985
  • Aiden, 1995
  • Avery, 1989
  • Jayden, 1994
  • Aubrey, 1973
  • Zoey, 1995
  • Addison, 1994
  • Dylan, 1966
  • Aria, 2000
  • Layla, 1972
  • Brooklyn, 1990
  • Riley, 1990
  • Skylar, 1990
  • Jaxon, 1997
  • Paisley, 2006
  • Ariana, 1978
  • Grayson, 1984
  • Aaliyah, 1994

To sum up, use a modern-sounding name to accentuate or contrast with a character’s innate qualities, whether the character is forward thinking and modern, or old fashioned. Despite some people’s initial reactions, this type of name is not unrealistic. Just think here of actress America Ferrera.

6. Reference names

Rank Xerox, the anti-hero monster Robot. Part aptronym, part reference name. Be careful! Rank Xerox had to change his name in the USA and the UK after a lawsuit for infringement on the Xerox trademark.

In addition, your names can reference characters and people and events in their entirety, rather than characteristics like majestic. Take, for example, Bambi and Thumper from Diamonds Are Forever, or Jaws, also from the Bond series. Bond has to fight the two women, Bambi and Thumper, but in a playful way that makes these impish names perfect for the occasion. Bambi can also imply elegance and beauty, and Thumper, fighting prowess.

Meanwhile Jaws, with is steel teeth, humorously evokes the hit Spielberg film of the same name, which still loomed large in the public consciousness at the time.

Alternatively, your character can be partly named after other literary or historical characters. Here we can take Napoleon Solo (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as an example.

Just a note: In real life,  knew a man, I kid you not, called Adam Eve. So referencing historical and literary names is not unrealistic. Just consider real names like George Washington Carver and Francis Scott Fitzgerald (named after Francis Scott Key), both taking their names from historical personages. However, you needn’t reference only other characters and literary works when you select a name. Jack Bauer, already mentioned above for his Bond-like initials, references the game euchre. In that game the Jack card ranks highest in the trump suit, and is called ‘The Right Bower.’ He is a trump card and trounces his enemies.

Reference name: Hawkeye Pierce (M*A*S*H) was named after the character Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans.

An intentional use of a name with negative associations can be great. Go for it!

PS: If you liked this post, find out a lot more about winning character names in Character names: Part One here.

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