5 Important Considerations for Naming Your Characters

My parents chose their children’s names according the meanings. They named me Kathryn in hopes its meaning, “pure,” would bear fruit in my life. (Of course, they also gave me a middle name that means “bitter,” so I’m still trying to figure out the ramifications of that… Pure bitter just doesn’t have quite the same ring, now does it?) They understood, as do most parents, that names are important. Mention a name, and preconceptions spring to mind. Although our names may not play a role in shaping our personalities, they certainly become a reflection of our background, our ethnicity, and our faith. They can even define our relationships: I’m only Kathryn in extremely professional situations; to most people I’m Katie; and to a select few I’m Kate.

Dreamlander NIEA FinalistSo it should come as no surprise that naming your characters is probably the single most important step in defining their personalities and the roles they will play in a story. Names can prove both a tremendous stumbling block and a huge inspiration. For a long while, the hero of my portal fantasy Dreamlander was named Chris Foster. And for a long while, he refused to cooperate. He shuffled around, mumbled excuses, and was generally ineffective and callow. I changed his name to Chris Redston, and strange and wonderful things started happening. Suddenly, I had an aggressive, swashbuckling hero on my hands. And all because of a simple name change.

I defy any parent to produce a more battered and dog-eared collection of name books than mine. (Unless, of course you’re a parent and an author.) I’ve spent many an hour thumbing through name books, skimming name sites, and even blearing my eyes over the telephone book. I drive everyone crazy with my demands of “Help me think of a name.” I read movie credits religiously, and I keep lists upon lists of names that strike my fancy. A character without a name—or, worse, a character with the wrong name—rankles in my brain like a mosquito bite I’ve sworn not to itch. As Mary O’Hara puts it in her The Making of a Novel:

I work at their names awake and asleep, driving, resting, eating, visiting. For days or weeks I would struggle with one single character rightly to name him, actually a sort of mad seizure, shaking him by the throat—“Tell me! Tell me! What is your name? Your real name?” … For me, at least, the naming—right naming—is part of the very structure of the character. With the wrong name, the character looks wrong, talks wrong, does the wrong things.

I wish very much I had a magic equation to give you, to help you instantly find the perfect name for every character every time. I wish very much I had such a magic equation to give myself (and I’ve no doubt my family and friends would second that wish). But, in lieu of that, hear are a handful of shortcuts and pointers.

1. Avoid Names Beginning With the Same Letter

Avoid using two names starting with the same letter in the same story. After being introduced to a character, most readers will stop reading the name and simply recognize the character by the shape of his name as their eyes skim over the page. If two characters share names that begin with the same letter—and particularly if the names are similar in size and shape—readers can very easily misread and confuse them. For example, in Dreamlander, I had originally named one of my characters Choc. But when even I started confusing his name with my hero Chris’s, I knew I had to change it.

2. Choose Realistic Names

It’s easy to get carried away with the naming game. Remember Anne Shirley and her penchant for outlandishly romantic names? Cordelia? Geraldine? Roselia De Vere? These names may have fit within Anne’s romantic fantasies, but they would hardly have worked so well had L.M. Montgomery chosen to scatter them among her own characters.

Granted, some characters and some stories demand extraordinary names (can you imagine A Christmas Carol with a hero named Eric Schmidt?). But for the most part, it’s much better to stray on the safer side and choose sensible, hard-working names. If you find yourself with a cast of characters who bear names you’ve yet to run across in your own personal experience, you’d probably be wise to hunker down and submit to inserting at least a couple Johns and Marys into the mix.

3. Choose Historically and Geographically Accurate Names

In the same vein, it’s vital to seek out historically and geographically appropriate names. Because it’s highly unlikely that a MacKensie Diaz would have been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I, the author of said MacKensie Diaz would be wise to change the name to something more fitting, lest she shove her readers right out of their bubble of suspended disbelief.

One of my characters in A Man Called Outlaw insisted her name was Aleis, but because I knew the name worked in neither the historical setting nor the geographical setting, I forced her into accepting Anna as a fair exchange.

4. Establish Gender With Neutral Names

If you’ve chosen a gender-neutral name, such as Tracy or Drew or any other within the host of recent crossover names, be sure to immediately establish the character’s gender. Don’t open your story with a woman named Kelly, only to reveal two paragraphs down that this Kelly person is actually a man.

5. Don’t Be Afraid of Changing Names When Necessary

I very rarely nail my characters’ names on the first attempt. In optimal situations, I have their names hammered down by the time I start the first draft, ensuring the names mesh perfectly with their personalities. But, despite my care, I inevitably find myself with at least one (six in my current project) character submitting an application for a name change. This can be a bit frustrating (not to mention perilous) when it occurs in the middle of the story. After all, the demand for a name change often signifies the necessity of some major overhauls in the character’s general portrayal. But it’s always worth the headache of dragging out the name books for one more go. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a character with the wrong name causes one heck of a stink.

Name resources.

Even though I’ve mentioned my naming resources in several recent posts, I’m going to go ahead and post them here.

The Greatest Baby Name Book Ever by Carol McD. Wallace—A comprehensive and entertaining stand-by.


Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon—Organizes names alphabetically, by origin, and by popularity according to year.


Popular Baby Names—The Social Security Administration’s records of baby names.


Behind the Name—Provides the history and etymology of first names. Allows searches by meaning and includes a handy generator.


Victorian Era Names, A Writer’s Guide—Names from the turn of the century.


Fantasy Name Generator—Set the specifications to your needs and generate dozens of names at a time.


The Elvish Name Generator—Discover your personal elvish (or hobbit) name.


Sean Puckett—Random Word Generator—According to the site: “…if you want to generate some new girl’s names, feed it a list of girl’s names, and it will take them apart and discover how to make girl’s names, then come up with a list of words that are very similar, but probably never before seen.”

Tell me your opinion: What are your tricks for naming your characters?

5 Important Considerations for Naming Your Characters

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Millie
    Evelyn
    Evie

    I had to think of the character’s transition. And I still don’t know whether to spell it “Evie,” which seems to leave a long “E,” or “Evvie,” with the short “E.”

    Pronunciation always gives me fits. It’s bad enough when I can’t figure out how to pronounce names other authors give their characters, but when I can’t pronounce or spell my own characters’ names? Eek!

    • Amalia Zeichnerin says:

      Often, it’s helpful for me to know the meaning of a name.
      Like “Stella” or “Esther”, both meaning “star”, in Latin and in Hebrew. I can easily relate to a character when his/her name means something matching his traits of character.

      I’ve had several name changes for characters in my current novel project. And I had them in former stories as well. The names just didn’t seem right for some characters anymore after some time.

      With one character I am still struggling, for practical reasons. His surname, Wright, seemed perfect for him but when I read it out aloud – and I want to make readings with this novel – it became a real tongue twister to me (it’s an English character but I write in my native tongue German, and I found out this name is not so easy to pronounce for me).
      So my simple advise would also be: choose names that you can pronounce – I think that is especially important if you have names from other cultures, countries, very old names or fantasy names.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        That’s the thing about names for literary characters: not only do they have to *sound* right, they have to *look* right on the page. As if things needed to get any more complicated. :p

  2. Oh, to be sitting on their shoulders!

  3. I know what you mean… but the good news (or the bad news, depending on how you look at it) is that readers will probably come without their pronunciations anyway!

  4. Belle Lynn says:

    Wonderful post Katie. I had to smile when you said you drive your family nuts when asking for names. I have a sister who writes and she is always coming up during our “Evening Family Time” saying, “Okay, everyone I need a name”. Everyone usually at that time rolls their eyes because we all know that usually after giving her all the names we can think of…she usually picks one she comes up with!

    I also agree with you when you stated that an author should never use two names that sound alike. I know personally when I read it’s nice to have the different character’s names not sound the same.

    Again…thanks for the great post! Keep of the good work! 😀

  5. Yes, writers are crazy people. I know from personal experience that just having a sounding board is a lot of help.

  6. Lorna G. Poston says:

    I never considered naming characters based on the meaning of the name. You’ve given me something to think about.

  7. Doesn’t happen very often, but it’s always neat when the meaning of a character’s name takes special significance in the story.

  8. Lorna G. Poston says:

    I found this website a few minutes ago: http://www.zelo.com/firstnames/index.asp

    Type the name and find out the meaning.

  9. Hey, neat!

  10. I have to admit, I am complete rubbish at coming up with names. Funnily enough, naming my two boys was tons easier than coming up with names for my characters. Heaven forbid I have to come up with any more characters than the ones I already have. That would give me fits.

    On reading movie credits for name, I have a funny story to tell. My husband and I were watching a favorite sci-fi/fantasy show one evening when I was nearly done with my current novel. I saw in the closing credits of the show one of my characters’ names. Seriously! The first and last name of a character I had created MONTHS ago was right there, staring at me, on my TV!

    I sincerely hope there won’t be any legal issues whenever I finally make it to publishing.

  11. That’s crazy! Unless your character’s name is a well-known character (Han Solo) or a celebrity (Jim Carrey), you’re safe as far as litigation goes, since names can’t be copyrighted.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I’m working on a book set in modern London and have run into two of the mentioned possible problems.

    A man named Courtney or Court to his friends. It’s actually his second naming, havng changed from Ashley (everytime someone called him Ash, I had a Pokemon flashback). But I was sure to show from the beginning that it was a male character.

    The second was an inappropriate name for a secondary character. Theodore ‘Teddy’ Burke. First and shortened name worked great to give him a quirk but after writing with him for several chapters, I found out his last name is a variation of an English insult. So now I have to go back and change every mention of his last name…an involved process considering he’s called by his last name more often than his first.

    So, I really wish I’d read your tip of checking for geographical correctness BEFORE naming poor Teddy…..

    • Burke is alright, I think it’s a fairly common name. Teddy is less common a name here, although just as I was thinking that I remembered a famous football (soccer) player called Teddy Sheringham; so it does exist as a name.

      The insult is “Berk”, which comes from a rhyming slang that I won’t detail here as you’re all decent people and it’s about as rude as it’s possible to get.

  13. The good news is that changing names universally in a doc is easier than ever thanks to Find/Replace.

  14. That’s MY middle name too! But when I hit my teens, we unofficially changed it to a name that means “pearl.” Bitter just doesn’t have the same ring, as you said.

    And further tip for epic writers with a ginormous cast: if you MUST use the same letters to start off names, vary the number of syllables and the last letter! This will keep the shape different. And introduce those characters very far apart from each other.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! Sometimes I think it’s the most common middle name ever. Great tip on varying the number of syllables and last letter.

  15. I’ve been enjoying your blog. Thanks for all the helpful, digging-into-the-details posts.

    Characters’ names certainly affect how I view them as a reader. In That Hideous Strength, I did not know for a while that Lord Feverstone was the same person as Devine from Out of the Silent Planet. I count Lewis’s Space Trilogy among my favorite books, but I confess I can never quite think of Devine and Feverstone as the same person since I spent a large portion of That Hideous Strength imagining him as someone else before his identity was revealed.

    Currently, I am working on a novel in which one character is first introduced to the reader (and other characters) under an assumed name. It’s not until about four (long) chapters later that he is called by his own name. While the Devine/Feverstone problem will not apply in this instance, I wonder if the reader will get a mental picture of the character from the first name that’s inconsistent with the mental picture the later name suggests. I’m trying to think of something for the assumed name that has a similar “feel” to the true one–or, at least, a name that has similar associations for me and suggests similar images. I suppose I can only hope it conveys the same impression to readers.

    Side note: I always try to Google characters’ names (or search for them on Wikipedia, or both) just to make sure they don’t already exist in another context that is likely to be familiar to readers. It would be especially embarrassing to invent what sounds like a lovely name for one’s fantasy heroine and then discover she shares it with a brand of cosmetics or a prescription drug or an insect species.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Switching character names midstream is always tricky. As a reader, I rarely like it, since I often get attached to the character’s first name. But sometimes circumstances in the story just flat out demand it.

    • Yep.
      I had a sorceress named “Sephora” once.

      Oops.

      Luckily I found out pretty early, though I still haven’t found a perfect replacement

  16. Bookmarked the last three 😀
    Especially the fantasy name generator is gonna help me a lot. Since I am writing fantasy and the cursor just seems to be blinking infinitely when a new character is introduced. I can’t even figure out the name of my protoganists teacher ( who is gonna play a vital role in the book)
    Thanks again for these cool resources

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is one reason I always try to identify and name all important characters *before* I start writing the first draft. It’s a simple task to take care of ahead of time, but it can cause major derailments later on.

  17. Nice to know I’m not the only one checking movie credits!

    Oftentimes, when I’m unsure about a character’s name (or just want to be extra sure), I’ll read off a list of my character names and have people tell me what they think of when they hear a certain name. They describe the personality and I see if it fits with the character I’ve created- if not, I ask them for name suggestions.

    For my latest project, the MC changed herself from a little redheaded chick named Kieran to a Puerto Rican woman named Lis- completely changed the story [for the better!]. Names are funny things.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s a nifty name book (the title of which I can’t remember for the life of me) that shows poll results about what people think of when they hear certain names. It brings a nice little added perspective to name choices.

  18. I love Behind the Name and Behind the Surname, too! What I love about these two sites is how it’s broken down into not only etymologically, but also by ethnicity. My WIP is set in Chicago and (as you know, via Dreamlander) a neighborhood’s ethnic identity, past and present, is an important element to the city’s landscape. Behind the Surname has been very handy!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I wasn’t aware of Behind the Surname. Very cool! Ethnicity is always a huge factor in my name choices. I’ve gone through my baby name books and color-coded all the names, according to their origins.

  19. thomas h cullen says:

    Croyan; Mariel; Krenok – The Representative’s sole three names.

    I’ll never stop liking these – they’re soundliness doesn’t get any better.

  20. I totally connect with this article. Even before I started writing anything beyond a prologue, I spent hours pouring over baby naming websites. I compiled lists of names from every letter of the alphabet for boys and girls. It was incredibly helpful in keeping my story moving. I then already had a list of names that worked well for people and places alike, without having to stop and do a search mid-story. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s also fun how sometimes great names actually create great characters, instead of vice versa.

  21. Thanks for the links! I’ll be sure to check some out. I’m having trouble coming up with the right name for my protagonist (I might have told you that his placeholder name is Mac). It’s interesting that Chris came out differently character wise after the changed last name. I heard that people tend to act differently depending on what they’re all called in real life as well, although I guess it’s a no brainer when you’re called Mr. Awesome v.s. Mr. Stupid.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love it when characters come complete with names. They seem to always end up being better characters when they do. When they get wish-washy about their names, it’s usually a sign of deeper trouble.

  22. Siv Ekman says:

    Finally someone who understands me when I say that a character’s name need to be _right_. I agonize over them, especially for my main characters, but the others bug me as well. I can get totally stuck when a new character appears and I have to name them. It’s like I can’t write about “the sister” – I need a name before she starts to show me who she is. That’s writer’s block of the worst kind for me. I do try to come up with the important names in the outlining process …. but in the current WIP one MC suddenly introduced his sister, without providing a name… *sigh*

    My main characters I almost always give names with meaning, so I love behindthename. Right now I have Mateo (gift from God) and Akir (bright).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s actually how I feel about stories themselves. Until I have a title, a story never fully solidifies for me.

  23. Melanie Carter Winkler says:

    I was wanting to have character with the intials JET, his full name was Jasper Eagle Templeton, he became half Native American.
    Recently my WIP has a few unique names because i decided to use some Shakespearean names. And in another i used Misha which could be either gender.

    I have now decided for last names is to browse the obit coloumns in the paper. I used books/CD covers, telephone books anything to find the right name

  24. This is very helpful; funny, just the other day I got the idea to use SS names. I’m still having trouble, though, with a main character who is an abused wife who ends up killing her husband. She is a victim turned survivor and it is in these situations that I found naming challenging- when your character changes roles. Well, I guess I just gave away how it ends. Probably not a good thing for a writer to do!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most stories are about change, at their hearts. So it’s always worthwhile to try to find names the character can “grow into.”

  25. Lisa Searle says:

    Names have always come very easy to me, and it is one of my favourite things about writing. Either putting a name together or making ones up (those are the most fun!)

    Although I have been having a problem with one of my secondary characters in my current WIP. She’s the ex-wife of my romantic lead and I have gone through so many names for her, none seem to fit. I’ve currently settled on Nina, but that will most likely change, as I’m still unsure about it.

    I also have a large database of names that I keep and as I work in payroll I’ve had access to all sorts of weird and wonderful names. So I even keep a notepad handy at work!

    • Thanks to the Behind the Name site I found a name I thought fit my protagonist better (at least for now). It’s Donal O’Neil. The last name popped in my head right after deciding on the first name and I think they both fit together pretty well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I used to work a job where we did lots of mailings – labeling and such. It was always rich fodder for names

  26. Nasir Deen says:

    My book is set in the African continent so I often had to do a little more research to find appropriate names. Fortunately the variety on the continent makes it easy to find distinctive names!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love it when I get to use foreign names in my stories. It’s such an easy way to bring exotic local flavor to a story.

  27. None of those name generators worked for me. My names are wonderful, but I don’t have enough characters for them!

  28. My long-suffering partner always gives a deft roll of her eyes whenever I pipe up with “I need a name”. But she’s good at offering up suggestions and I quite frequently use her offerings, if not for the exact character I originally need it for.

    I think Martin Amis is one of the best at naming characters; there’s always something perfect and effortless about the names he gives his characters that I am quite envious of.

    I’ve come across an example of the same name being used for two characters in the same book, which was Misha Penguin and Misha non-Penguin in Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (one of my favourite books). It made me laugh each time I read it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It always amuses me how authors (myself included) can sometimes we less perceptive about the details in their stories than are readers.

  29. While I’m casting about for the perfect names for main characters, I made a list of names I like for the story world, but that aren’t quite right for the MC. Then, when I have a new character to introduce, I pick the best one from the list to fit the personality. Usually one of the names on the list stands out as the right one. This way I don’t interrupt the writing flow too much.

    For the novel I’m working on, the list has about 50 names on it, ranging from outlandish made-up names to “Mary,” but they all sound like they could fit in the story, if attached to the right person.

    Thanks for the great post on names. I hope my trick helps other readers!

  30. I knew my character had to have a two-syllable name, and for some reason its origin had to be Hebrew, and it had to start with an E. I’d been calling him Simon but that was just off, exactly like you said when a name’s not right. One quick internet search and I’d found it. Eron. It somehow just fit. It was so right, like that name had been destined for him since before time began. Can you not imagine my joy? I mean, how often can you search for thirty seconds and find a name you can honestly call perfect? I love babynames.com

  31. The name Amelia isn’t very popular, but it’s not weird either since it’s the name of Amelia Earhart, and Mary is her middle name, though I also know a lot of people with that name, and it’s the name of one of my characters, and Samantha Storms came from one of my dreams. Amelia’s cousin just goes by Sam, and is a girl.

  32. Ohh … the names.

    I love that quote.

    Names have been one of the most frustrating things in my current WIP
    I have had to change the MC’s name six times, and I’m STILL not entirely sure it’s working.

    Eric and Ari won’t compromise

    Cocky Pirate Girl WILL NOT TELL ME,

    The MC’S sister insists on stealing a name from Starwars Expanded universe. (And it’s not even a name I LIKE)

    The antagonist’s name seemed okay, but type it into searches, and apparently it’s obscure and kenyan… What?

    Add that to the fact that I have an entire nation of characters named after imaginary plants and animals, and it gets even worse.

    Annoyingly, out of my four major supporting characters, the two that I ended up getting rid of were the ones with satisfactory names, and the ones I got rid of were the names that worked.

    I love that idea about reserve lists, but I usually need fitting fantasy names, which take awhile to think up, and my lists never seem to be long enough.

    What I might end up doing is just using names that kind of work, and then change them to something that makes sense later.

  33. Hi, Katie. I was happy to see your article posted on Autocrit. I have spent the last two months reading Creating Character Arcs as I edit my own first manuscript. It has been so helpful! Just started Dreamlander and look forward to Chris’s story.
    I can relate to the name issue. When I first started my project, the protag’s name was Ashling; a lovely name but I spent four months not having a clue who she was. When I had an epiphany that her name was actually Briana, I knew exactly who she was and her story poured out of me. The name makes all the difference. Thanks for sharing your gift and expertise with us.

  34. This is one of the few areas where much of my experience is quite different from yours! My characters tend to hold to their names XD despite me trying to change them. In fact, one of my projects, I just used a placeholder name for a character as I fleshed something out. Except, he wouldn’t go by anything else. I tried several other names and each time, he just didn’t come alive. I stuck with that placeholder name and it was fine.

    I do, however, do a lot of research into names in general. Language and names are two more of my passions (aside from reading and writing). I also do con-langing (constructed languages), so it all ties in together. I think, because of that, I seem to have a good handle on names in general. Mostly. There are many a time, I go searching for an appropriate name for a character that is being stubborn.

    I did want to point out another site that I enjoy for names, mostly because it has a “Special” meaning category, with everything from names that mean dragon to names that mean some kind of element.

    http://www.20000-names.com/special_categories.htm

    I use it especially when I want a quick rundown. Enjoyed the article, once again ^^

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  1. […] so much that goes into our characters. K.M. Weiland walks us through naming characters, while Maggie Stiefvater explains why she rejects character profiles as a writing […]

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