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.
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.
- WordCreator – A free app that makes readable words and allows you to choose characters and syllables from different languages.
- Social Security Administration’s popular names list – Here, you can find the top 10 most commonly used names for both boys and girls from different decades.
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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.