Know Your Enemy: A Lesson in Naming Characters

“New Zealand Maori rowing ceremonial coreography,” courtesy of wikimedia commons

You know what I used to not like?

When writing something, finding out it’s already been taken by something else.  That there’s already someone with that name.  Some place with that name.

But you know what I like even better?

Learning from my experiences.

I love New Zealand.  I love how beautiful it is, and the fact that Peter Jackson shot “Lord of the Rings” on it.  I know a fellow English major in college who’s from New Zealand.

Yet some how, New Zealand got into my writing when I was young, and without me knowing it.

The book that I’m currently working had its idea spring in elementary school, but it didn’t take shape until two years ago, when I wrote a draft for NaNoWriMo.  And according to a Google search by a fellow writing friend of mine, the protagonist’s name is the same as the name of a locality in New Zealand as well as a Maori word for a sweetgrass.

I created the name by using letters of my own name.  I had no idea in elementary school that it was a placed in New Zealand or a word in another language.  At this, I panicked.  I thought, What if someone from New Zealand reads it, and either thinks of the locality or the plant? I don’t want them to think of New Zealand.  I want to be taken seriously.  I want them to think of my world, and my plants.  I want my character to be unique.  It’s the same idea behind George R. R. Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen.  Nobody forgets a name like that, nor the world where it comes from.

However, as it turns out, I’m just freaking out.  Here’s why.

1. It’s not the name that makes a character unique; it’s the character.

When you hear the name “Harry Potter,” many of you probably think of the young wizard boy with a scar on his forehead.  You probably don’t think of the Australian journalist with the same name who died in May of this year.  You also probably don’t think of the two Harry Potters in the 1986 film “Troll.” The maker of the “Troll” even tried to put up a lawsuit against Warner Brothers, because of the alleged similarities between the Harry Potter series and his movie.

Point being, many people and many things have the same name.  It’s inevitable.  Some of us pass on our names to our children.  And in fiction, or real life, it’s no different.  The Harry Potter of Australia is not the same as the Harry Potter of Hogwarts, nor the Harry Potter father-and-son duo in “Troll,” (even though there’s some magic-using involved, but watch the trailer and see for yourself), because the stories are different, and each Harry Potter does something different.  One is more famous than the other, however, which does make for some problems in naming your characters.

2. Try not to use famous people or names that are already taken.

Yes, you can’t get away with using all names.  Try using Harry Potter in one of your stories in this era, and you’re going to get some backlash, because Harry Potter will probably go down as one of the most successful fiction marketing campaigns of all time.  Everybody knows about J. K. Rowling and her wizard boy-to-man fantasy story.  However, if you give him a middle name, Harry Alfred Potter, made him blond with flawless skin, or make him a crime boss with no magic in your story whatsoever, you might get away with it, but that’s a generous might.  You’d have to work really, really, really hard to make people think of your Harry Potter differently.  (Plus, Harry Potter on its own sounds homely, and crime bosses are rarely ever “homely,” unless you want to do this for comedic effect).

So why make it harder for you at all? Yes, you can name your character Harry.  Harry is a common name.  And so is Potter.  But in a world where you can name your character anything at all, why not Harry Baker? Harry Harrington? Harry Cobweb? Harry de Jesus? Harry Eliza? Harry Richards? Harry Beehive? Don’t get hung up on a name that’s taken; that just means that there’s more for you out there to possibly take!

Go out and find your own!

3. Locations are fine for names.  In fact, they’re a good source for them.

In Tibet, there’s a village named “Korra.”  In West Virginia, there’s a city named “Bolin.”  However if you’re a fan of Nickelodeon’s hit TV-show “The Legend of Korra,” you’d be surprised, like I did, to find those names are actual words that the creators used.

Just because the word exists doesn’t mean it’s off limits.  Place names have no copyright, nor do words in other languages.  If I wanted to name my character “Hana,” I could use the Japanaese meaning, or I could create my own language that has a word “hana” but has a different meaning.  If the creators of “The Legend of Korra” could get away with using these names, then that means you can used names that happen to be names of places, too.

But like I said.  Your characters have to be developed, solid, and stand-out immediately before we can even think of the name.

4. Embracing it helps, too.

Learning about Maori culture in New Zealand has actually given me some ideas for my book.  I’ve been looking at Maori dances like this one and am amazed at the strength in these people, inspiring me to come up with a race of strong people of my own.  And who knows? Maybe my protagonist is more like sweetgrass than I thought? Thin? Delicate? Fragile? Or when she grows stronger, she’ll lose that sense of her?

The point is that when naming characters we should be open to all possibilities.  That is what creativity is: finding, searching, absorbing, rejecting.  It’s a process of discovery, and one step gained or lost is another step closer to finding that perfect nirvana.

Creativity is a quest, and searching for a name, I’ve learned, is no different.



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