How to Breathe Life into Your Characters

How to Breathe Life into Your Characters

Part 1: What is in a Name?

Traci Kenworth


How do you go about naming your characters? Do you just close your eyes, dip

your finger onto the page, and choose that one? Or do you meticulously search for one? In any case, the one you end up is going to say a lot about your character. It’s instantly going to give us an image of who he/she is. The type of profession we see them in. Family person or single? And more come to mind.

Take Harry for instance. If we look into the meanings of baby names it means, “Army Ruler.” But when I think of the name Harry, I don’t see that. I see an average Joe, just trying to get along. A family man who brings home the bread. Solid. Dependable. Someone who makes a good Grandpa or friend. Harry’s got a lot going for him, if you want his type of character in your story. But if you want, say a British character, or a villain, his name wouldn’t do at all.

All right, let’s try: Caydan. His name means, “Fighter.” And he sounds like a hero, tough as nails, someone who will go the extra mile. Someone devoted, tough when called for, and a popular guy. Friends growing out of his ears and the like. Oh, and his name is American. So that leaves out a foreign tribute. He definitely makes Harry come across as a bit boring, a bit set in his way. Caydan promises danger, romance, intrigue.

Gabriel means, “God is my strength.” This name evokes heavenly references, of course, but it was one of the most popular old-fashioned baby names. To me, a Gabriel sounds like he would be Lord of the castle, a gentleman of means. He also sounds a bit edgy, on the outskirts of what society might find as the norm. Compared to Caydan and Harry, Gabriel is unique. He could be the hero or the villain of the piece. He could even be a “she.”

Which brings us to the heroine names. Let’s start with: Abedabun is Cheyenne for Sight of the Day. Her name could encompass many different character traits. She is the maiden that saves the village, a Present-Day champion of Native American values. We have loads of possibilities with this one. She can be anything and everyone. A secret agent perhaps? A mother defending her children? A heroine who has been framed for a crime she didn’t commit?

Whereas Abigail is stoic, someone certain in the path they choose. She is old-fashioned, perhaps a bit wealthy, upper-crust. One doesn’t see Abigail fighting off alligators, running from terrorists, or blazing a path of glory. But she could. Twisting the fate/name of a character broadens their horizons and ours. It calls for us to stretch as writers. And that alone could make planting the seed of her name worth it.

Queeny. Wife. Grandmother. Someone trying to break out of the mold. She wishes for so much more out of life than what has befallen her. She strives to make a better live for her children even in the face of danger. She is courageous, a bit rebellious, freedom-loving. You could do so many fascinating things with this character. She has no boundaries, no limits.

And isn’t that what it’s all about? Picking names that resonate with our ideas of the character? We can take Harry and Abigail together and make them uproot from our perceptions. We can make them heroes or villains, a force to be reckoned with, or a prop for laughs. They can be the loyal friends of our hero/heroine, or monsters waiting to be noticed. The truth is, any name can become unique because it’s how we see it, what our imagination pulls forth. So the next time you need a name for a character, stroll through the possibilities of baby names, their meanings, their origination, hidden perks that can bring them to life.

And paint that picture of them. Let them soar into creation, designed to be all that they can be, with just a whisper of a name. That’s the first test of breathing life into your characters…


6 thoughts on “How to Breathe Life into Your Characters

  1. Oh, I like this subject! I actually have a character naming book that I use when choosing names. A lot of thought goes into it. I spend far too much time picking names that match the personality of my characters or how they should be perceived etc.


  2. Me too. I fret over the names until I’m sure I’ve got them to fit the character exactly “right.” It is fun though(almost as much as choosing names for your children). I have 3 baby names books plus I search the internet for the latest or historical names. You’d be surprised what you can pull off genealogy sites.


  3. Interesting post. I like names. It varies how I pick them out. I’ve been known to write an entire first draft without a name of a character. One just didn’t hit with me until I got more into the story! I like having meaning behind my names. Like, for instance, Marcus. Means warlike, but my character is kinda wimpy. That was just fun. Not sure I’ll keep it (I’m in the first rough draft process) but we’ll see. 🙂


  4. I like the name Marcus, I think it suggests an inner strength so if you could show him coming to grips with that, it would outweigh his wimp factor. But you’re right, it’s fun to play against type sometimes too.


  5. My character names don’t always reflect their meaning but the image the name conjures up for me. Mostly, for my heroines, I just choose girl names I love. B/c I’ve always felt the person more makes the name then the other way around.

    Glad to see your tweet button. I’m going to try it!


    1. Absolutely, a character makes a name. That’s how we can get heroes out of Joe Smith say, or heroines out of Kathy McCoy. It’s all in the building up of their personalities, how they overcome their circumstances, and just letting the character come into play by his/herself.
      Oh and the buttons, got them to work here but I still don’t know how to pull an image from one site to the next to display a share button of say, The Bookshelf Muse or NanoWriMo etc. I had a friend put on the YoungAdultFictionFanactics ones but can’t figure out how she did it for the life of me! Lol.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.