Twenty Ways (and More) to Name or Not Name Your Characters

Image: Alan O'Rourke CC2.0
Image: Alan O’Rourke CC2.0

I have a dear friend and wonderful writer and critique partner who has changed all characters’ names in her WIP multiple times. All except for the real, historical people–thank goodness. Bless her heart. I am confused sometimes trying to remember if it’s George or Jim or somebody else this week. It has to be hard on her, too.

Editing is a pain in the sweet patootie, as well. You have to remember to “find and replace” the character’s name each time or you end up with a manuscript with multiple names for the same character.

Naming for me has never been a big issue, but I hear from writing friends that they, too, suffer with the search for the right name for each character. So I know I’m pretty lucky. Of course, I’m also a wimpy Libran. Mostly my characters name themselves and announce that to me as I write. I don’t fight back very often. Mostly the first name out stays in.

But if I did have trouble, what would I do?

Just for you, I did a bit of research on naming characters and found some good stuff out there. Okay, it wasn’t an exhaustive search, but good enough to generate some ideas if you struggle with character naming. When I googled “how to name book characters”, 112,000,000 sites popped up. I only got through the first million. (Only kidding–go for it!)

1) The most common advice given is know your character well and see how the name fits his personality, attitude/outlook on life, background, and foibles. It is so obvious, but Frank may not be the best name for someone who lies for a living. Or maybe you want to play off that bit of incongruity.

2) Choose a name you can turn into a nickname. Umm. Maybe, but I’m not a nickname person (never had one, never used one with my kids). Some say this personalizes your character, makes her more knowable. Maybe.

3) Make a list of names of all friends. One list for first names and a second list of your friends’ surnames. Mix and match to find a wide range of usable names.

4) Make sure the name is era-, ethnicity-, social status-, and age-appropriate. Even with the modern trend to past names, Agatha is not a likely choice for today’s six year old.

5) Another piece of common advice is to check out name etymologies. You may love Linda for your villainess’ name (I know a Linda who fits the bill), but when you read that the “lind” stem means “weak, soft, gentle, friendly”, you might want to choose Imelda (from “hild” meaning “battle or fight”). For one of my books, I searched etymologies for female Gaelic names so I could imbue my character with those traits.

At Debbie’s blog, Moon in Gemini, I found a really useful catalog of specific options, some of which I hadn’t seen before like a couple of baby naming sites. (It’s been a while for me to need to update that resource.) She also listed a site for Deep South names that could work very well for certain genres and eras.

6-13) Debbie’s post listed nine naming resources: telephone book, movie credits, most-common surnames in 1990 census, two baby name sites, two southern names sites, fantasy names site, and magickal names book.

14) It is suggested that you take a few minutes and look around the room. What objects or animals could become names? “Pen” could become “Penn”; “book” into “Booker”, the dog is “Barker”, and so on.

15) I’ve been told a way one author names his characters is to get out maps for the setting and find town names to put together for first and last names. For example from a map of Louisiana, I created Goldonna Pollock, Clinton Mangham, and Erath Patterson.

16) A great suggestion for naming that appeared a few times, was to choose and name and then say it aloud. Is it harsh sounding? Can you see yourself saying the name easily and often? Hard consonant sounds add strength to characters; soft consonants can sound more pleasing to the ear.

17) Another idea I ran across for naming was to scan books of a similar type to see what names are used. I think this would be especially helpful in science fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy. Those names can be quite unfamiliar to readers. I love how books with aliens use a lot of consonants together to create unique names.

18) Several suggest keeping a master list of names that strike your fancy as you encounter them. When stuck for a name, try your list first since those are ones that resonated at one time.

19) A unique naming idea is to randomly choose two words from the dictionary, maybe move some letters around, and voila! A name no one else has thought of. This works especially well for science fiction and fantasy.

20) I’ve seen people advise you to consider your character’s occupation and choose a name that fits. Not that I named my culinary mystery protagonist “Cook”; I chose “Wesson” as her last name. The cooking oil. Get it? Sometimes I crack myself up!

Some naming caveats:
1) Keep an alphabetical list of your character names. Don’t use “C” for twelve people! (I’ve done it.)
2) Don’t get names from the newspaper to avoid lawsuits. Okay, so maybe I’m paranoid, but why risk it?
3) If you’re writing historical fiction, make sure you know if last names were in use. Generally speaking, 12th century and earlier didn’t have surnames. When they did come into use, they were often reflective of birth place (“Cliffford”), occupational (“Carpenter”) or demonstrating relationships (“John’s Son” became “Johnson”).
4) Do a search to make sure no one famous already has that name. Avoid the hassle by choosing another name. There are a million options. You’ll find another.
5) To save yourself a hassle with possessives and plurals don’t use names that end in “s”.
6) Don’t wear out your readers by using too many odd names. Odd names can interrupt the reading of the story. Use with caution.

Author: Sharon Arthur Moore

Sharon Arthur Moore is an intrepid cook, who has lived in every region of the country except the Pacific Northwest and loved every single one of them.

4 thoughts on “Twenty Ways (and More) to Name or Not Name Your Characters”

  1. Good point about the odd names.
    I had these characters with real simple forenames, and after some years I thought I’d try the opposite direction, you know, to fit their world better.
    That was dangerous. Not to mention exhausting.

    I’ll have to be more careful.

    Thanks for the tips!

    1. Thanks for stopping in to read and comment. Naming our characters is so important, you can see why people work so hard at it. Names send such powerful messages. Wasn’t that one of Joseph Campbell’s points? Do you have some other ways you get naming ideas? I love to hear what other authors do.

We love comments and questions.

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