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What You Should Consider When Naming Your Characters

Creating your cast of characters is one of the most exciting parts of storytelling. Naming them, however, is not always easy. There’s plenty to take into consideration – from the nature of the plot, to the genre, the location and time of the setting, and even the nuances of pronunciation. All of these things can affect whether character names do or don’t work.

Alongside the primary advice regarding naming your characters, this post also contains links to various resources – so don’t be afraid to add it to your bookmarks. That way, the next time you’re stuck for a name, you’ll have all you need right at your fingertips.

 

Genre conventions

Your choice of genre tends to come packed with a few conventions readers have come to expect. That doesn’t mean you can’t play with these conventions, of course, but it’s worth considering how your chosen genre affects the best choice of names.

Think about how names in fantasy stories are different to those from historical fiction. Readers expect stories set in 15th century Italy, for example, to have names that make sense – think Nichola de Pescina rather than Dave Norman.

Unless you’re writing a biographical piece about a specific historical figure, it’s best to avoid names that are identical to influential, historic, or famous individuals. Keep fiction as fiction. You can always merge or adjust real names, though.

In fantasy, the writer has much more freedom to create unusual names. These might be inspired by real words that have been subtly changed. For example, a reference to the Roman goddess Minerva could become Minera – an imaginary word but one that might automatically invoke connections in the reader’s mind. Just make sure it’s pronounceable – more on that later.

Useful tools:

 

Variety is the spice of names

Be mindful of how names sound when spoken aloud. It would be a monumentally bad idea, for example, to have a main character called John, who’s married to Jean, and their son is called James, and they all love their pet dog called Jones. In fact, it’s a solid approach to avoid using the same first letter initial for any characters in your story.

As with anything creative, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it goes a long way to avoiding reader confusion. The last thing you want to do is frustrate your reader – because a confused reader is a reader who’s going to put the book down, give up, and possibly give your work a public thrashing in their online reviews.

For the same reason, it’s best to avoid names that sound very similar – like Emily and Amelie, or Bert and Bart. (Though ‘Bert and Bart’ definitely has some comedic potential.)

Useful tools:

  • Random Name Generator – Does what it says!
  • Film credits – You wouldn’t generally think of this .. but don’t flick off a film as soon as the names start to scroll. Take a minute or two to see if any among the crew capture your interest.

 

Is it all in the name?

Using names as insight into characters’ inner motives is risky territory. There are loads of examples, like the Starks from bleak Winterfell, and the twisted-but-pretty Bellatrix Lestrange. But it’s been done – and if you’re to do it, remember to do it with subtlety. No-one wants to deal with an eye-rolling name like Guy Everyman today.

Useful tools:

  • Baby name books – These give insight into the meaningful origins behind certain names, so yours don’t need to become a lazy form of exposition.
  • ‘Behind the name’ – A website arranging names by gender, meaning, origin, etc.

 

Avoid tongue twisters

Audiobooks are a growing market, and you never know when you’ll want one of your novels to take the leap across. So it’s worth investigating: does your character’s name flow off the tongue or stick in the throat?

Fantasy and science fiction writers are more likely to be caught out, here. While creating a unique or alien name, you might get carried away and end up with Xy’llzzii the ambassador from Q’vvuwqi.

Unique? Yes. Readable? Not quite.

A reader’s mind won’t fully process names such as these. Their eyes will flow over the name and ignore it, often seeing them formulate their own personal reference to that character’s name. In other words, you have failed to capture them fully.

Besides that, think of the poor narrator who may be enlisted to read your book for the audio edition. Confusing, illogical names are a pronunciation minefield – and stumbling over them will drive your narrator insane, and make the production of your audiobook much more difficult than necessary.

Moving on, alliteration can be a useful tool to draw the reader’s attention to a character. Think of Willy Wonka or Severus Snape.  Be careful not to overuse it unless you’re writing for comedic effect or a Dr. Seuss style story for children, however.

Useful tool:

  • Your public library – A great resource for finding names. See if they hold old yearbooks or phonebooks.

 

Not too realistic

Type your character’s name into Google. What pops up? You probably won’t have trouble with imaginary names like Blorck Bozare, Galactic Pirate, but even if you’re confident the name is entirely invented, it’s possible an uncommon name might belong to a real person. This has the potential to cause problems – especially if that fictional character is one of the bad guys.

Should you find a real-life link, change the name in your edits. It’s not worth upsetting someone or getting sued. The chances of this happening are low, yes, but are you so attached to the character name that it’s worth the gamble?

Similarly, it’s a good idea to avoid using famous names for their association. This goes both ways – positive and negative. Think, for example, of Lincoln lending the reader a positive image, or Adolf as a quick method of conjuring a sense of evil.

There’s too much baggage with some names. Leave them alone, and try creating your own that give these same feelings through their pronunciation. Harsh consonant endings, for example, are generally suited to villains – as are names that are constructed using existing negative words or terms, such as Killian (kill) or Voldemort (mort, meaning death).

 

Names are such an important part of the identity and can provide subtle insight and backstory to a character – if you handle them with the right amount of subtlety. If you’re feeling stuck or unsatisfied with your character names, try not to waste time rattling your brain for alternatives. Use a few of these helpful naming strategies, and get back to writing your story.

And remember: you can always go back and change names later.

How do you go about naming your characters? Are you able to pull fitting names out of your head at the drop of a hat, or do you make use of any tools such as those we’ve linked? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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Join the Discussion on “What You Should Consider When Naming Your Characters”

  1. Bob Giel says:

    Great instructional piece. I like the suggestion to read movie credits and I use this frequently. I’m usually the last person out of the theatre because of it. I keep a list in my phone and add to it whenever a name strikes my fancy. Then, when a character’s name is required, I refer to the list and almost always come up with a fitting name. Once used, that name is deleted from the list.

  2. Eric Butler says:

    “Film credits – You wouldn’t generally think of this .. but don’t flick off a film as soon as the names start to scroll. Take a minute or two to see if any among the crew capture your interest.”

    This is funny because I actually spend time reading the credits just to get ideas!

  3. Chris says:

    I like that idea, Eric.

    I think every writer needs to compile – and keep topping up – a pool of names for their characters, but how do we come up with these characters’ names in the first place? Where do we find them?

    Do they grow on trees for us to just go out and pick?

    Well the answer to that is ‘almost’. In fact trees are as good a place as any to start, as are any other interests that you might have.

    Trees?

    Well there’s ‘Beech’ and ‘Birch’, ‘Sycamore’, ‘Redwood’, ‘Pine’, ‘Maple’, ‘Elm’, “Hornbeam’, and ‘Ash’ just for a start.

    I’m into motorcycles, so I’ve gleaned names from that world like ‘James Villiers’ – most post war James motorcycles used Villiers engines; ‘Frances (Frankie) Barnett’ (though she prefers ‘B’ as a nickname) – my first bike was a Francis-Barnett, or ‘Fanny B’ as they were known. Another is ‘Lucas Bright’, and I’ve used ‘Plug Champion’, ‘Tillotson’, ’Douglas’, ‘Benelli’, ‘Blackburn’, ‘Pasolini’, ’Henderson’, and ‘Ancilotti’ with appropriate forenames.

    From an interest in pioneer aviation comes ‘Saulnier’, ‘Anson’, ‘Guynemer’, ‘Voisin’ and ‘Fonck’. Then there’s towns and counties, with ‘Georgia Didcot’, ‘Noel Caversham’, and ‘Adrian Kent’.

    Most productive of all, there’s that rich vein of people we know or have met that we can mine for names, though when putting these in my pool, I have a certain convention that I follow. I’ll always mix the names, rarely using both forename and surname from the same person as a character’s name.

    Usually I’ll only use full matches in the case of people who were either long deceased, or are just names I’ve heard. There’s no point in upsetting your mates, apart from the one who actually asked me to use his name and description as a character ’cos it was on his bucket list..

    For foreign characters, you can Google ‘common names’ for a nationality or culture for ideas, or mix and match the names of well known people from that nation’s history (though be aware of some cultures ‘genderising’ surnames – as in Icelandic: Magnusson/Magnusdottir).

    If something comes into your sights, put it into the pool, even if you’ve no use in your current work in progress. These things will always be useful one day.

    I personally compile all these names into a list – I don’t bother with putting them in any order, other than male and female, as they’re as random as the opportunities to use them – and I keep adding to it as new ones come to mind.

    Don’t forget that there are forenames that can be surnames, and vice-versa. Sometimes it’s particularly satisfying to name a nasty piece of work as an old boss or other bad memory from your past.

    Only one thing to beware of, though. As alluded to in the article, when you do choose a name for a really nasty villain or a complete idiot, I agree it’s a good idea to Google that name to make sure that he or she isn’t someone really famous within a similar field (or in a country you hope to sell books in). It might not look too good if your mad wheelchair bound evil genius was called Stephen Hawking, would it?

    1. Eric Butler says:

      I named my son Andin, who happens to also be a character in the book I’m working on… :/ He’s a good guy though 🙂 My wife didn’t know it at the time. She just liked the name.

    2. Rob Campbell says:

      Consider – is this a cold country? Then Nordic names may work well, quietly reminding your reader of this background. Or Inuit, perhaps? If it’s a warm place, then try names from Africa / South Pacific. And – these places have their own ready-made myths and legends. Don’t copy them; use them as models.

  4. Eric Butler says:

    When I was a kid, I used to make up names for imaginary planets, stars, and solar systems. I’ve long since lost the list, but for some reason, dreaming up fantasy names comes easily for me.

  5. Most of my character names came from my furbabies names, family names that were twisted around, and also from people that I knew from long ago. My first book, Broken from the Assumptions series, the MC has the name Ayma Kuntz. Now, I did research and there are people with that name in countries outside of the U.S. It is only vulgar in the U.S. society. I picked this name for shock value, it goes with the storyline, and I was always taught to make sure you grab the audience attention. What better way than to have an MC that has an unusual name.

  6. Marilyn says:

    I have always told my now-grown-up children, to never leave a movie before you find out who the ‘best boy’ was. They laugh at me, but when we go to the movies together they now they have to stay seated until we find the ‘best boy’. That way you can listen to the music and watch the people. All food for thought and observation.

  7. Thekherham says:

    I’m in the middle of a trilogy of science fiction novels which take place on two different planets. I have a list of names and yes, I have an apostrophe in some of the names, but that apostrophe is not just thrown in there to make it look alien. And I have never, in all my reading, come across names such as Xy’llzzii the ambassador from Q’vvuwqi, or any other names consisting of consonants and a bunch of apostrophes thrown in for good measure. The names you pick for your science fiction stories/novels should be alien. And I don’t mean short names like Zok and Zik and Worf etc etc. They should, if you don’t mind me saying so, have some meat on them.
    (And my name is pronounced Tee kee’ rahm. Yes, I know, it’s complicated, but there are rules to the pronunciation.)

  8. Chrome Oxide says:

    I like to use the more generic first or last names of musicians that I enjoy listening to. ie. John could be anyone, Cipollina is a more recognizable name. At least if you are a fan of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

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