Most writers will send hours pouring over names, searching for that perfect one that fits a character like a shoe. We can spend hours on this endeavor until we finally arrive at “The One.” There are many name website out there to help us on this task; I personally love www.behindthename.com, which is my go-to site for the numerous countries represented and the random name generator; it also has anagram names and name themes section.
With all these sites, it is easier than ever to find that perfect match; however, writers need to watch themselves and guard against certain naming pitfalls. What pitfalls you ask? Setting plays a big part in what names you can be used, believe it or not. If you are writing a Japanese historical fiction novel, you aren’t going to want to name your character Kelly or Susan — no, you will want to use names like Akane, Keiko or something else of that variety. This is a major pitfall in fanfiction and just screams lazy, do not read me, I’m a Mary Sue!
Of course, there are ways around the above. Your character’s parents might have been fascinated with that culture or spent time in it and decided to name their child one of the names that they had grown fond of from that culture. It happens all the time nowadays.
Another pitfall for historical fiction is poor research. Some names may not exist yet during the time period you are writing in, or perhaps the spelling variation you have fallen in love with was not used at all during that time period. So be sure to do you research before setting that name in stone. Finding popular name lists for the different years can be helpful on this subject like this one on BabyCenter.
Another consideration is: What are your societies norms for naming children? The best why to answer that questions is to look at different countries, and once again, Behind The Name can be handy since they have little sections about different countries’ names and naming practices. For instance, in France, parents have to look at a list of approved names; they are not allowed to name their children anything that is not on that list, so no Blue Ivy or Apple. Perhaps the culture your character resides in has similar rules that are aimed at preserving traditional names and/or protecting kids from future bullying.
Additionally, does the society your character resides in use middle names for their people? If yes, what is the usual number of middle names per person? Does it vary by class? Or perhaps your society does not use middle names. And how about surnames? Do your societies use them or not? There are some societies out there that don’t use, plus there were some periods of time where surnames were not used. Or perhaps, like the Japanese, your character’s society puts the surname before the given name of a person. If you are a speculative fiction writer, consider playing with some of these different aspects. If you are writing historical fiction or any other genre with a novel that takes place in another society or culture, make sure you follow that time period or societies’ guidelines for names.
Finally, be weary of choosing names with certain meanings or that describe your characters, unless you know who to do it properly with out rubbing them into your readers’ faces, making them groan. Bella Swan (beautiful swan) is a perfect example, largely because it only further highlights the self-insert nature of the character and it just shows blatant favoritism. However, meaningful names can be refreshing and fulfilling if they are more subtle or perhaps the opposite of your character’s personality.
Also don’t forget other forms of significance, including characters being given the names of other family members or people significant to the family or parents. A name that has been passed down from generations can be a nice touch; it also provides grounding and a history — a feel that your world has existed for some time or the family has.
Don’t be afraid to try new things or take some of the old naming cliches and playing with them; after all, the old-and-tired are not necessarily bad as long as they are given a new spin.