Writers: How do you name characters?

05/11/2016 Discussions, Writing 20

Writers: How do you name characters?Is it me, or is one of the hardest parts of starting a new story naming all of the characters? Maybe it’s just me, nitpicking over small details, but it seems like a pretty big responsibility, naming another human (or elf, or dwarf etc.), even if they are only fictional (God forbid if I ever have kids and actually have to choose a name for another human being!).

It’s just that once you’ve chosen a name you’re pretty much stuck with it for the entirety of the project, unless you’re willing to put in a lot of effort afterward to go back through and change it. So I’d say it pays to choose wisely in the first place!

But what makes a good character name? For starters, I think it has to be suitable for the place/time it’s set in. So if your story is set in a medieval style fantasy world full of castles and knights, naming a character an ultra modern name like Jaden or Tyler might be a bit odd (although it’s your story, so if that’s what you want to do, go for it!). Likewise if you’re writing a contemporary then calling your main character who’s a just regular high school student ‘Princess Liliath Lelandi Lichtenstein the Second’ might be a bit much…although to be fair I think that name might be a bit much for most books!

I also think it needs to suit the character (and by this I don’t mean you do a Dickens and literally name every character after a trait or their occupation!). Whilst with real people you’re named at birth and then grow into your name, with fiction it’s the other way round. Sometimes you see a person and just think they look like a certain name – maybe they are sweet and girly, and look like they should have a nice floral name like Daisy or Lily – and I think those are the best kinds of names for characters. By the same token you don’t want to take it too far though and have every cool Goth character have aΒ suitably dark name, or every tough character to have a super tough name (unless it’s a nickname!), because that just seems too convenient.

So I guess it’s fair to say that naming characters is tough, and I’d love to know how other writers go about the process. Personally I have a few approaches:

  • I consult my running list of names.

Seen as I know that I always struggle with character names, I keep a running list of possibilities on the Evernote app in my phone. Any time an interesting name occurs to me I quickly note it down, so when I’m starting a new project and inevitably have trouble christening my characters, I can just check my list for something suitable.

  • I brainstorm options for the specific characters.Β 

If I have a very specific character that I need a name for, I often spend a little time coming up with a few possibilities that might suit the character. I think if I have a few options I’m less likely to plump for something stupid that I’ll later regret, as I can pick the best of the bunch, and even run my options by an unbiased third party (and by that I mean I ask my mum or my sister if my name ideas are stupid or not!).

  • I use name generators.

A little while ago I was browsing on Pinterest and stumbled across a name generator, which has proven itself pretty handy the odd time I’ve been really stuck for a name. I write a lot of fantasy and so have to come up with a lot of unusual names, and so getting ideas and suggestions from a name generator (particularly one that gives you very specific options like ‘elf names’, ‘bandit names’, ‘medieval names’) can really speed things up.

And here’s a few little tips for things I personally wouldn’t do when naming a character:

  • Don’t name them after people you know.

Because depending on the character, they may not be particularly flattered…

  • Don’t pick names that sound too similar.

If you give characters in the same novel names that are too similar sounding it can get confusing for the reader – did anyone else keep getting mixed up with the names Aelin and Aedion in theΒ Throne of GlassΒ series? It’s only the first two letters that are the same, but at a glance I kept reading wrong which character the book was referring to!

  • Don’t pick names that are impossible to pronounce.

I’m looking at you George R.R. Martin! I’m still not sure I’m pronouncing Daenarys Targaryen right. Even if you’re just reading the book in your head, an unpronounceable name can make you stumble over a sentence, and then it’s hard to really lose yourself in the book and forget that you’re reading.

  • Don’t pick names that are too weird.

If it’s fantasy, then I guess you can go as weird as you want, but I think in contemporary especially, if you go to weird it just comes off as a bit contrived, if that makes sense? Plus you then wonder how everyone the character meets in the story isn’t all like, ‘what the hell is up with your name?’

So fellow writers, how do you come up with your character names? And do you have any dos or don’t to choosing names?

20 Responses to “Writers: How do you name characters?”

  1. Michael Tyne

    Nice post, Laura – all good advice. I personally would LOVE to be able to have a character called Princess Liliath Lelandi Lichtenstein the Second!

    I have a couple of little cheats I use.

    For minor characters in particular; I have a bookshelf right next to my desk. I often simply pick random christian and surnames from the spines of my books: hence “Terry Moorcock” and “Robert Wingrove” in two recent cases.

    Another good one is athletes/sports stars. This has a noble history. Sherlock Holmes was originally going to be “Sherrinford” Holmes, until Conan Doyle remembered Mordecai Sherlock, who used to play cricket for Derbyshire…

    This is particularly useful for foreign characters, where you might not have much of a feel for what are suitable names. I’ve named a couple of Indian characters by making reference to lists of the Indian international cricket team, for instance.

    Finally, a lot of surnames are derived from place names: if you’re struggling for a decent surname, have a look at a map. Good examples: Gloucester, Lancaster, York (or Yorke) etc etc….

    • Laura

      Hehe, I’ll totally have to slip the name into my NaNoWriMo novel! πŸ™‚
      I love your cheats, I’ll definitely have to try those! Using real names is a pretty good way to make sure they sound realistic, especially with foreign names, which are the ones I tend to struggle with the most. And I definitely know a couple of people in real life who have place names as surnames, so looking at a map is a good way to go. Thanks for sharing your tips! πŸ™‚

  2. S. Davila

    Well Laura I’m a beginner writer and I look for interesting name meanings, dictionary finds, researching this or that for everything. Often times there’s names that are just too good to pass up if you have the time. Good luck to a fellow writer.

    • Laura

      That sounds like a great way of finding names for characters, and I like that they have some specific meaning that way. I’ll definitely have to try that!
      Good luck to you too! πŸ™‚

  3. Pamela

    I love that generator! Lol! Usually I don’t pick the exact same name it creates. I usually use them to alter them into something I could use according to the story’s needs.

    For town names, though, that thing is my life savior! I’m the worst at names, but place names are even worse!

    • Laura

      Yeah, I often alter them a little too, but it’s good as a jumping point. And I am so bad at place names too! I definitely use generators a lot for that stuff as well πŸ™‚

  4. Cait @ Paper Fury

    These are excellent naming guidelines! I AGREE. I get so annoyed when characters have similar names within one book. Agh. Like I read a book with an Adrian and Allison and seriously….I never knew who was in love with who and legit thought there was a love-triangle between them and the protagonist for AGES until I realised I just couldn’t read.πŸ˜‚ Ahem. But YES! I have lists of names just lying about everywhere. It’s very handy. *nods* But I find naming sooooo hard and I always forget my characters names. Omg for my Nano project? I have characters called Max and Sam…and I just switched their names in one scene WITHOUT REALISING IT AND I GOT SO CONFUSED. They don’t even look/sound the same! I am a wreck! πŸ˜‚
    I also like to cruise Nameberry.com for cool names. And I like how they have lists of “other names you might like” because sometimes I’ll find even better names that way. I also pinch last names! Very handy.

    • Laura

      Hehe, to be fair, I can see why there was the confusion. Adrian and Allison are both ‘A’ names, with plenty of vowels, so they are a bit too similar really! πŸ™‚ I am terrible for forgetting my characters names too, especially secondary characters that just pop up every now and then. I’m generally just like – there was a butler in chapter two, but what did I call him? Because I need him again in this scene! πŸ™‚
      I haven’t tried Nameberry.com before, but I’ll definitely check that out! Hopefully I can grow my running list of names some more, and then I’ll never be stuck! πŸ™‚

  5. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight

    Naming characters is so hard sometimes! I don’t really have one method though. Like, for two of my stories, I knew right away what I wanted the male love interests’ names to be. And then I looked up their meanings just to be sure, and both worked out perfectly. But the females always give me problems. For one, I searched and Googled and thought for a while. Finally I decided I wanted it to have something to do with the sky or rainbows or something related, but I still couldn’t find anything. I literally started reading scientific wikipedia articles and whatnot about these things, thinking maybe I’d see some word that would work, and lo and behold I actually did lol. For the other story, I kind of just asked my friend for advice about the different names I was coming up with, and she helped with her input until we found one that suited the character. Side characters I tend to have less trouble with. I often just kind of bust out with a random name, and then it sticks lol.

    Btw I love your comment about the princess name, haha.

    • Laura

      It can be so difficult! I love that though when the perfect name just pops into your head (and that landed so lucky with the meanings of your two male characters!), but it doesn’t happen for me often. I’m the opposite though, in that I find naming female characters easier. I just seem to be able to find more options for some reason!
      I love the idea of searching out specific meanings though, and asking a friend for advice seems like a good idea too. I sometimes think the names I come up with are pretty stupid, so I like to run them past people to see what they think, and that helps because then I know if it’s actually a stupid name, or me just doubting absolutely everything I do in regards to my writing! My side characters definitely have much more random names too though – I don’t put anywhere near as much thought into their names as I do with the main characters!
      πŸ™‚

  6. Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight

    This is so great! I agree with you SO much about naming characters too similarly! I read this book once where the dad’s name and the love interest’s name were separated by only ONE LETTER. And that was… confusing at best, alarming at worst πŸ˜‚ I have such hard time with this too! Sometimes I HATE a name and yet it still seems like my character NEEEDS to be named that. OR I will finally, FINALLY pick a name only to see it show up as the TITLE of a NEW BOOK. (That happened to me this year, and I was trying to change it but I couldn’t- It was already HER NAME!)

    I did, however, once name every character (loosely) after people I knew. Which was kind of fun πŸ˜‰ Who knows if it will ever see the light of day anyway hahah. Basically, half the time the name literally pops out at me mid-sentence and sticks. That is best case scenario, I guess haha.

    • Laura

      Yeah, that does sound like it would have been a little weird…I think I find that the worst though when characters have names too similar (or the same as) anyone I know. It either ends up like that did with your dad’s name where you’re like ‘so this is weird!’, or it will be a likeable character with the same name as someone I hate, and then I will just automatically hate them! πŸ™‚ And I know what you mean! I have named characters names before and then seen a new release where a character has the same name as my character (and at least that’s not the title of the book – that would be even more annoying!), and so then I feel like I have to change the name. It sucks! πŸ™
      Haha, I imagine it would be kind of fun to write something using the names of people you know…if I did though I would definitely not let them read it! πŸ™‚

  7. Inge

    Great post, Laura! I always find it interesting to see how other people go about their writing. I also keep a list of names I really like, which I often browse through when trying to come up with a good name. When I need something special, I’ll go googling on baby names websites. πŸ™‚

    • Laura

      Thanks! πŸ™‚
      Baby name websites is another great place to find names! I have done that a few times myself, but it’s one I always seem to forget about πŸ™‚

  8. Kaja

    Writing fantasy really puts pressure on choosing unique names – but you’re right on point with the part on picking easily pronounceable ones. GRRM might not even be the worst there is. I still have to double check how Celaena Sardothien is spelled. πŸ˜‰

    Since I write contemporary/urban fantasy, I use baby name sites! πŸ˜€ They are useful for “strange” sounding names, too, just pick a non-English origin, there are loads of really uncommon options there.

    • Laura

      That spelling of Celaena always gets me too! I had to change all of the spellings in my review of the first Throne of Glass book after I double checked the spelling and realised it was spelt ‘Celaena’ and not ‘Celeana’ πŸ™‚
      Baby name sites are definitely a good place to look for names! I especially find them helpful for finding non-English names, because they’re the ones I often struggle with πŸ™‚

  9. Author~Chan

    This is a brilliant idea! And no, You’re not alone! Naming characters is probably harder than coming up with a good story! Designing characters is my favorite part though so i end up taking soooooooo long making names. i end up looking up names lists for names around the time period i am writing like for my current story (the one with Scotty and Edith) i looked at two lists of the top 100 names for medieval children and chose which ones matched the characters personality.
    Again, i completely agree with this post, it is so difficult to find a good name, especially if you have a lot of characters.

    • Laura

      That’s true! Naming characters is probably one of the hardest things!
      It sounds like you have a really good process for coming up with names though, as I think research is a good way of getting accurate names for the time your story is set in πŸ™‚

  10. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I am HORRIBLE at this. So horrible at it, in fact, that I think every name in my book except for one was a name that I seriously considered naming my daughter. The name of my main character right now IS my daughter’s middle name (I might change it, but we shall see.) The boys’ names are the first and middle names I would have used if she had been a boy and her best friend is a girls’ name that was at the top of our name list. So, apparently, I used up every name I loved when I went to go name my daughter and I have no completely run out of other ideas.

    • Laura

      Well at least you know you definitely like the names if they are names you would have considered naming your daughter! It can be so tough to come up with names though, and I know I’m running out of ideas now, as I’ve used most of the names off my list of possible character names now, so I keep having to top it up using the name generator! πŸ™‚

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