If you’re looking to this post to help you learn how to select character names, sorry to disappoint. I’m struggling myself. Which is strange for me, because in my previous two novels, character names were one of the easiest and fun parts of writing.
In my first MG novel, I went full-on J.K. Rowling, researching mythology and folklore from every corner of the Earth. That was a blast! My characters had first, middle and last names that were carefully selected due to their character traits and purpose in the story. Their back stories read like a full-length novel, including why I’d chosen this name or that.
On my second YA novel, I mostly let the names come to me, and they did. It was like they already existed and I just had to wait for them to reveal themselves to me. I’ll call this full-on Stephen King, because King has compared writing to the excavation of fossils. They’re already there, we just have to delicately unearth them a little at a time.
Bu then there comes my current novel. To start with, as a re-telling/inspired by YA novel, this story already has semi ready made characters with names and backgrounds, so I’m stuck with thinking of them as who they were, not yet who I will make them to be. They are forming, unearthing themselves little by little, and researching is helping also. I guess you could say I’m employing both of my previous methods. But I’m still stuck. I was psyched to start researching names, developing characters and generally fleshing out this novel in my head, but some of the research actually made the decisions more difficult. I’ve never faced this before. I’ve never had to decide what a character’s name was. They told me!
Here are the names of the main characters I need to make decisions on, and I’ll detail what my dilemmas are for each of them. I’m hoping this airing of issues will form some sort of clarity in my head, and if not, maybe my readers have suggestions. I’ll take any and all at this point!
I was all set to change Cora’s name. It’s pretty. It’s simple. But I wanted to make my characters mine. So I looked up the meaning of “Cora”, thinking that I could take that meaning and then find an African name with the same meaning. Oh, did I mention in the original The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper made Cora have black ancestry, though she appears white? Yeah, he did. I thought this was pretty significant, so my Cora will be bi-racial, and I wanted to honor her African heritage with a name. Easy, right? I had a plan, I just needed to research and find the right name.
Well, turns out, Cooper may have been the first person to coin the modern name Cora. Kore (pronounced the same) is another name for the Greek goddess, Persephone. It is believed Cooper took the name and changed it to Cora and all other modifications (Coraline, Coretta, Cara) stemmed from that one instance of naming a character. That’s some heavy name mojo, as far as I’m concerned. A whole series of names developed because one man chose a name for a fictional character!
And to make matters worse, not only did Cooper coin a name, but he chose Cora very carefully. Persephone was known as the maiden goddess and she was kidnapped by Hades, dragged to the Underworld and forced into marriage. Cooper’s Cora was described as the epitome of all that was righteous and beautiful in the proper English maiden, and she was kidnapped by Magua with the intent that he would drag her back to his village and marry her.
So this leaves me with a few choices, and no clear victor:
Cora: keep the original because of the amazing name-mojo Cooper created
Kore: go with the original Greek spelling because it is awesome in my opinion, different, and I’m making Cora my character and not Cooper’s
Ala: name of the earth and fertility goddess of the Ibo people of Nigeria. She was also the goddess of the underworld. So basically, the Nigerian equivalent of Persephone, and Ala has a nice ring to it. It satisfies my earlier desire to honor her African lineage, but it hasn’t quite grabbed me yet.
Fatouma – Fatouma was an ancient legend of a beautiful young maiden (virgin) sacrificed to a virgin-eating dragon in Mali folklore. All the other virgins had been sacrificed once a year, until Fatouma was the last. She was rescued and married by Hammadi who slew the dragon. The reason I liked this name, was because I imagined my character’s mother telling her the story and saying she gave her the name to remind her that she doesn’t need a man to slay her dragons, or something like that. Once again, I like the reasons behind it, but the name isn’t singing to me.
Okay, Uncas is staying as he is. He has to! He just is the story. Uncas is the reason I fell in love with this story back in the 90’s. He’s the reason I want to write this book. Sure, I’ll make him my Uncas, and not just Cooper’s, but I can’t give up this name. One small hitch. I’m trying to honor the Mohican heritage as much as possible in the writing of this book, and the truth is, Uncas is a Mohegan name. They are two tribes that came from a similar region, though vastly different in their origins. It is believed Cooper mistook them for the same or possibly used elements of both to create his story. Whether this was artistic license or Cooper just not knowing that much about the tribes of the region, no one is sure. Regardless, Uncas is staying, and his back story will include how his father was saved by a Mohegan chief and he named his son after him.
Hawkeye had quite a few names and I’m hoping I can find a Mohican word that will cover his name. More research to be done.
This is another name I need to research. First, I think it too is Mohegan, but I’m not sure yet. It means Great Serpent, so hopefully I can find something shorter that will work for him.
I was all set to call this character Alyss, like Alyssa. It’s kind of like Alice, but different. And this is Sci-Fi, so futuristic is good. Alice means “sweet and noble” and I came across a few other names I liked that mean the same thing: Alia, Saree, Lacy, Eolla, Elke. Still leaning towards Alyss, but happy to hear opinions.
Okay, I was all set to change Duncan’s name. It would be interesting, because it’s not a name you hear often, but still, I want my characters, remember? In TLOTM, Duncan is a British officer who is very good friends with the Munro sisters and vying for the affection of Alice. My “Duncan” will instead be their older brother. “Cora” and “Duncan” will share the same mother, while “Alice” will be the product of a second relationship. (Dad Munro doesn’t like to settle down in my story). So this of course means that both Cora and Duncan will be bi-racial. Once again, looked for African names that meant the same thing as Duncan. Guess what Duncan means? Brown warrior! Seriously? Brown warrior. Could I even have a better meaning name for my bi-racial Duncan who is a soldier? It’s as if Cooper is reaching through space and time to not only condone my take on his book, but tell me not to change his names! Regardless, I have a few options that I like that I’ll share:
Duncan – stick with the original
Kael – means warrior – Irish (I like the sound of this one)
Donovan – means brown warrior – Scottish (another version of Duncan, and I like it better, maybe)
Owen – means warrior – Welsh
Onika – means warrior – Africa
Tupac – means warrior – Africa (not sure I want a Tupac because of Tupac Shakur)
And that’s pretty much it. Things seem a little clearer now, though by no means decided. I’d love to hear anyone’s opinions on my character names. Ultimately it’ll come down to what feels right to me. It always has. They will tell me who they are, but my subconscious can be swayed by the opinions of others. 🙂 And I’d love to know what methods you employ in finding character names yourself. Have you ever had a dilemma in deciding the right one, or have they come to you pretty easy?