Your Characters' Names: Do You Know Why You Chose Them?

Your Characters’ Names: Do You Know Why You Chose Them?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

So says Juliet to Romeo, but we all know how that turned out. Sorry, Julie, but the truth is that names matter to all of us. For fiction writers, this truth is especially noteworthy. Novelists and short-story writers, you know your characters’ names are going to be in print and electronic form, for all the world to see, for a long time.

How Did Your Parents Name You?

Do you know the circumstances that led to your parents deciding what handle would be yours for the rest of your life? True, once you reach the age of consent, you can decide enough is enough, and legally change what you write on checks and credit card bills ( if, say, your name is Hulga or Rumpelstilskin). I happen to be okay with my own given name, Barry. It’s a tad unusual without being eccentric (and I know why I was given the name, but the reason is embarrassing, so I’m not telling).

I decided to learn a little more about the names currently being given to real children by real parents.  I went to Behind the Name.  The site’s data is based on Social Security information, and what I learned was eye-opening:

In 2013, the most popular name given to boy babies was Noah.

Number 2 was Liam, 3 Jacob.

The name Jack, hugely popular with author-parents, ranked #40.


Poor Romeo was far down the list at #338.

Are Your Characters’ Names Winners or Losers in the Name Game?

For girls, I was surprised to learn that Sophia was #1 last year.

Emma was #2, Olivia #3, Isabella #4 and Ava (the name of one of my grandchildren) #5.

Juliet fares better than her lover does, but is pretty neglected at #238.

For trivia fans, a tie for last place among boy names—at #998—is Darien and Clyde. Clyde I get: Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry uses that as the generic name for all the low lifes and criminals he has to “discipline.”  Darien doesn’t seem all that bad to me: Keats referred to it in a poem.

As for last place among girls’ names, I was shocked to learn that Astrid, a Scandinavian name I’ve given to one of my own fictional progeny, checks in at last place, #987. Amazingly (to me), just ahead of Astrid is the beautiful, biblical Judith.

Playing God: Naming Your Fictional Children

Writers are omnipotent parents: unlike our real-life parents, their decisions are irreversible.  The children they bring into the world will never be able to change their names, nor any attribute given to them.

Like birth parents, writers think in many different ways as they name their offspring. They may use:

  • Allusions to famous works of literature
  • Historical persons
  • Names they just happen to like
  • Names they wish were their own
  • Names readers/agents/editors will react to positively

Think about it: have you named a hero or heroine after someone you had a crush on in high school?  Does your assassin or terrorist carry the name of the playground bully you still vividly remember pulling your hair, or stealing your lunch money?

One Man’s Family: Naming My Darlings

All this led me to reflect on the names I’ve given some of my storybook children. In my first published novel, the thriller The Dating Service, I named the bad guy Bob Hack. One syllable each for first and last names would be easy to remember, and “Hack” suggested violence. After it came out, an academic friend congratulated me on having published a “potboiler” thriller.  He said giving my killer an ironic name—Hack–suggested I had a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward genre fiction. It’s remotely possible he’s right, but since I admire good genre fiction and still write it, I no longer share scribbler chitchat with this person.

My second novel Just Bill is a fable for adults, about dogs and owners living on a golf course. I wanted the names to represent types of people in the community. My lead character—Bill—is a rescued dog. The man who rescues him grew up during the Depression, and he thinks of the dog as a hobo. He names him after a popular song from the period, “Bill.” His own name is Fred Vinyl: he made his money in vinyl siding. Other human characters are named Trust Fund and Telecom.  A border collie is named Hotspur, after the smart, volatile warrior in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One.

My third novel The Anything Goes Girl is the first installment in my suspense series about a young woman journalist. Her name is Brenda Contay, and my path to naming her is a little involved.

When I first got the idea for the series, I thought of the character as a latter-day Brenda Starr, the reporter in a comic strip of the same name.


As for Contay, that came from knowing a little French: contes means “tales or stories.” That’s what the Brenda Contay suspense novels are—tales or stories.  The word Contay also suggests “cont.,” the abbreviation for “continued,” which is what a series does. I also liked how the name sounded, especially the four distinct vowel sounds: Bren-da Con-tay.

For the antagonist/heavy in The Anything Goes Girl, I birthed a character who gets himself kicked out of the FBI training program at Quantico, Virginia. He goes on using his FBI identity, and I gave him a name that would serve as a conversation-starter—Charles Lindbergh.  It’s something about which he can joke and make small talk, putting his victims off-guard and making them easy to handle.

His counterpart in the next Brenda Contay novel is divided between two characters. One is the brains, the other the brawn. Louis Rohmer travels a lot—New York City, Mexico’s Cabo San Lucas, the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. In other words, he roams.  The muscle Rohmer relies on is Jerry Lomak. He’s a nasty piece of work, a bad version of Joe Sixpack, i.e., a low mack of a man.

In other words, the way I name my kids is whimsical and personal, and for that reason it’s not for everyone. If there’s any method at all to my madness, it has to do with sound effects and suggestion.  But whatever you name characters, it’s both interesting and useful to give some thought to how you go about it.

After all, I’m talking about your darlings, your namesakes. And nothing’s  more important than family.

Tell me your opinion: Why and how did you choose your characters’ names?

Your Characters Names Do You Know Why You Chose Them

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About Barry Knister | @barryknister

After retiring from college teaching in 2008, Barry Knister turned to writing fiction. His third novel The Anything Goes Girl is the first installment in the Brenda Contay Suspense series. Book Two in the series will be released later this year. Visit his website to contact him.


  1. In my last novel, I give the protagonist the name Marvin Leversee as I thought it would be a good name for a complete victim, since he is just that. In chapter 3, his mother, who never liked the name Marvin and free from her ex husband, has his name legally changed to Mark. Unfortunately, the bullies use this against the protagonist by bullying him calling him by his former name. In fact, after the protagonist shoots up the school, many in the town trivialize the shooting on the grounds that he did it because his name was Mark and he didn’t like people calling him Marvin.
    As for the bullies, since the story is based on bullying I suffered back then, the names of the actual bullies are simply disguised. If one of them were to read it, they stand a good chance of deducing that a character might be them. However, they just couldn’t prove it in court.

    • 80smetalman: this is interesting, but I wish you had told us why Marvin and Leversee struck you as good names for a victim. You explain how the change to Mark leads to bullying–but what about Leversee? Or am I a “neversee” who can’t pick up on what’s right in front of me?

      • Barry, I’ll make a confession here. The whole premise is based on me. I had a name similar to Marvin, in fact there were a few children who thought that was my actual name. I chose Leversee because its similar to my surname and except for a player on the US rugby team back in the 90’s, I haven’t met anyone with that surname. Therefore, I used it because it was unusual and kids like to make jokes about unusual surnames.

  2. thomas h cullen says

    Croyan. Mariel. Krenok

  3. Sally and Frank just sort of came to me. Their last name Phytheous was a bit more involved. It was finally suggested that Frank’s last name remind you of a snake (he was a bad bad man). Poor Sally was just stuck with it because she married him before she realized he was a bad bad man.

    Kate Kendall, well…frankly, Kate is after Kate Smith. Kate, my Kate, was originally going to be an opera star. Alas, I couldn’t seem to get into that, so a country star she became. Kendall just sort of went with.

    The last character I named is a housekeeper. Her name doesn’t really fit her or her job and she makes a note of that when she’s introduced, Ashley Elizabeth Farnsworth.

    My crossover character is Albert Alexandra. Albert’s a middle-aged PI so I thought it fit pretty well.

    • Nora–
      I sincerely like the way you’ve gone about naming your characters. Especially the snake of a man, alluding to things Greek, like the Pythian games, or Pythian priests at Delphi.
      Especially, though, I like what you did to and for your housekeeper. That’s very good, a name that contributes to establishing the character of the character.

    • Zelda Smith says

      I named one of my MCs Pyrrhus, because it 1) is Greek for ‘russet,’ the colour of the character’s hair and 2) after Pyrrhus from the Iliad, the son of Achilles, who helps lead the sack of Troy and slaughters Priam and many of Priam’s children in revenge for his father’s death; the character similarly pillages and burns a city after the citizens of the city massacre his people. Also, like how Pyrrhus from the Iliad kills Priam after he has claimed sanctuary at Athena’s altar, the character sets fire to the temple of the head goddess of the city, killing all of the worshippers praying inside for deliverance.

      • Zelda–I would describe how you operate as a thinking-person’s methodology. Names that allude to famous people/literary or mythical figures give readers in the know a special, added pleasure: they “get it” in a way other readers don’t.

  4. My protagonist, Darby Shaw, told me her name. She also shares a name with a protagonist from a best selling novel about 20 years ago. Her partner, Mark Herman, I wanted a strong, but Biblical name. The last name just “fit”, but now I see I may have unknowingly picked it because he’s “her man.” More on that in the next releases. 😉

  5. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Barry!

  6. I’m already a fan of the website “Behind the Name” and use it to browse character names. At least the main ones.
    In my current WIP (fantasy with some religious themes) I have two protagonists; Mateo (meaning ‘gift from God’) and Akir (meaning ‘bright’). Even if no one but me will ever know the meaning of the names, they fit with their roles in the story.

    • Siv– My guess is you’ll be surprised at how many of your readers are going to get what lies behind the names you’ve given to your characters. But even if they don’t, the facts behind those names serve you as a writer.

    • I love that site. I have a baby name book that I’ve kept since middle school; it’s falling apart now. I’ve added names and clarifications to it, including surnames, and that site has helped me fill in the blanks.

      My trilogy is also a fantasy with some religious themes, and I carefully chose names based on their cultures and meanings. I can be downright Biblical in how I name characters — a blond might be named Flavia, someone born by the sea might be named Adria, and so on. Like you, I rarely mention the meaning in the story; it’s just something I keep for my own purposes.

      • Jamie–
        Your naming process further supports the idea that having a plan, an approach is first and foremost very helpful for the writer. Operating on pure impulse may work some of the time, but probably not consistently.

  7. I was lucky enough to be named after the hero of Chanson du Roland… and a great uncle. I try to give my characters names whose meaning suggests an aspect of themselves. Currently working on a saga of short stories in which many of the characters have mythological references and the names have a relevance – such as two brothers, the Ashvins referring to the ones in Hindu mythology, who are two Vedic gods, divine twin horsemen in the Rigveda. Or for instance a few generations later another is called Satu, which in Finnish means ‘fairy tale’ and is also the Finnish translation of Saga).

    • Roland–‘
      Your name places a certain chivalric burden on your shoulders, but you seem to be making good use of your name legacy. The names of your characters, with their network of associations, open up lots of intriguing possibilities for developing backstories.

  8. Thanks for the article.

    The protagonist in my current WIP is named Samantha Bishop. The name Samantha comes from the character of the same name played by Vanessa Marcil in the TV series Las Vegas, and I wanted that name to remind me that the character in my story is supposed to be attractive and appealing (even though she doesn’t recognize that in herself). The story involves Samantha having a spiritual awakening of sorts, so I chose the last name Bishop to suggest this spiritual aspect to the story.

    I would say that my choice of names is really all about reminding ME, as I’m writing, what I think the characters and plot stand for. If they make sense to the reader, then all the better.

    • Andrew–
      Using names to serve you the writer makes perfect sense to me. And something else: it’s not true for all stories, but in many the value of a name increases when it lends itself to variation. Samantha, for instance, makes for a very workable familiar form in Sam or Sammy. Being able to ring changes on a name in this way gives the writer more wiggle room. I do it with my character Brenda in The Anything Goes Girl. She is frequently referred to by her friends as Bren.

      • Yes, I agree. I’ve been using the shortened form Sam a lot in the narrative, because it seems to fit the understated meekness that characterizes my protagonist before her spiritual awakening. Thanks for the reply!

  9. I’ve never been terrific with character names, and ultimately where names are concerned I tend to go with a gut feeling. If the name, in some terribly vague way, feels true to the character I’m writing, then it sticks around. Nothing more complicated than that.

    But one of the best authors I’ve worked with, Elizabeth Leiknes, tends to bring something of a fairytale vibe to her work, and consequently names are fundamental. There’s Lucy Burns, the titular character in The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns, about a woman who works for the devil. And there’s Story Thyme Easton, the central character of the wonderful The Understory.

    I proposed a subsequent book in which Story marries romantic interest Hans Turner and gives birth to a daughter named Sequel Paige, but no one else was quite as amused by that as I was.

    • Harrison–
      It’s a shame, but some people just have no sense of humor. I see anyone who appreciates, say, Jack Handy hitting the Buy Now button for your proposed book. BTW, Handy’s latest is titled (I love it) The Stench of Honolulu.

  10. To answer Barry’s questions — for my current WIP I’ve gone trawling through archeological/historical resources to get names for some characters. One of the cultures is based on a real-life civilization that is now literally ancient history, and its language hasn’t been entirely deciphered. I went with a name that sounds nice (assuming it’s pronounced the way it looks!)

    For other characters I rejected names that would be anachronistic for religious or historical reasons. For example, I would never name a Spanish Celt “Maria,” but a Phoenician “Monica” might work. For other names I went with their ancient spellings as opposed to their modern versions. So, Cynthia reverts to Kytheria.

    I am terrible at remembering names in real life (I initially addressed you as Bob). I hate names that are overly common, so I’d never name a character Bob or Lisa unless I wanted them to be blank slates to the reader. A character named Pedro or Juan is blank to me, but Sergio jumps off the page. If I went too many chapters between Bob’s appearance I might not remember who he was, but I’d remember Bo.

    For those of you who use your friends’ names, do they mind if you do that? I once named a friendly alien race after a little girl I was babysitting (she was sitting next to me the very moment I needed to name them), but that’s as far as I go. Do you have a rule about not using your own name in stories? It always amused me that in “Emma,” Jane Austen had a character named Jane Fairfax, and that Emma hated Jane Fairfax. I could not imagine naming a character “Jamie.”

    • Johnny–sorry, Jergen–no, Jamie, that’s it–
      The only thing I would add is that too many highly unusual names can draw attention in a negative way. This obviously doesn’t apply to genres that involve very exotic times, worlds, etc. But here on Planet Earth, in the present, I think it’s good to avoid too much novelty. As for commonplace names, I would also defend their use in certain circumstances–and doing so is self-serving. In my suspense series, Brenda meets up with a man named Charlie Schmidt. They become lovers, and will be together in future books. Why such an ordinary name? Because Charlie is a “normative character.” He represents common sense and reason, so his name is as “regular guy” as I could come up with.

    • One of my characters’ name is Jamie 😉
      He’s a jazzman, in case you’re curious.

  11. I was named very much with purpose by my parents, as were my three siblings. They wanted out names to be something we should aspire to, and names that remind us how much God loves us. We all have Biblical names.

    My main characters always come to me already named. The name has meaning to them, and to the plot. I write sci-fi romance with a humanoid alien race, so I’ve been making up tons of names and having a blast. I pull mostly from Welsh and Gaelic sources because they have the pronunciation and odd spellings I’m going for.

    The main character in this series, and the ancestor by the same name who I named the series after, is A’yen. In his language it means strength. It’s an ancient name most of his species no longer use. He’s named after his grandfather, who was a man of great internal strength, and A’yen’s father knew when he was born A’yen’s path in life would require him to be a man of great moral and character strength.

    When I’m working with contemporary or historical stuff (which I also dabble) names continue to be important and are chosen based on what they mean and how it relates to the plot. And when they come to me already named, it never fails that their name ends up relating to their conflict somehow.

  12. Rachel–
    As is true of others who have commented today, you give stability and purpose to your work by having a clear method in how you name your “children.” It’s a valuable thing to be doing, as I’m sure you know.

  13. I research names, especially last names but sometimes first names, too, to make sure they fit my characters’ ancestries and personalities.
    And I’m conscientious about first letters of characters’ first names. As a reader, I find it distracting when the author gives her characters same-first-letter names (susie, sally, sandy). The funny thing is that I tend to gravitate toward certain consonants. So I have to be especially careful naming secondary characters.

    • Julie–Obviously, you are paying close attention to what you’re doing, listening for sound effects, avoiding too much sameness in characters’ names, etc. This can only work to your advantage.

  14. I pick most of my names for sound, and since they’re often Asian names, the range of sounds is slightly different than what one usually expects from western names. For example, one character is named Takeishi, which I chose mainly so he could be called “Tak” by his friends. I’m also quite fond of the Chinese practice of doubling girls’ names, and used the name Li Li with this in mind.

    In other cases, the names fit into a plot point. A Korean character is named Ba We, which means “Rock,” to indicate his great physical strength, but also his silence. And a boy who resembles him is called Dol Swae, which could mean “slave,” but later gets shortened to Dol, which might mean “stone” or “pebble.” His adoptive American family then calls him Stone.

    I have also chosen names for historical resonance, either as echoes of famous heroes, or of villains.

  15. Claire–I have a question about Johnny Wayward. It makes me think of Sid Vicious, the early British punk rocker. The name you give your character gives you some interesting possibilities: assuming his name is invented, how did that come about? And what is Johnny’s actual name? Intriguing.

  16. Jacques–
    The growing diversity in American society opens the door to lots of great new naming possibilities. You appear to be taking advantage of this–good for you. I would suggest, though, that you take full advantage, by weaving into your narrative brief explanations for those who won’t know the cultural or linguistic significance of the names you use. This alone opens lots of potentially fascinating doors.

  17. Hi Barry – I search high-and-low for my character’s names: across the internet, thumbing through the phone book. I’ll keep looking until I get what I call that “homerun” feeling. I gasp and a shiver runs up my spine and I know I’ve found the right fit. This was a fun concept to think about — thanks!

  18. Hi Barry, and Everyone.
    I name my characters on instinct. To me the name just sounds right.

    • Louise–
      Nothing wrong with naming by instinct. But as Katie Weiland noted in her own post on names, what instinct must not be allowed to get away with is handing you names that begin with the same letter–especially consonants–for your major characters. Samantha and Sandra, or Tony and Tom in the same scene can make for some unfortunate sound effects.

  19. pamelacreese says

    My father named me Pamela… after the novel of the same name. That is a legacy to lived up to.
    I write fantasy so many characters have distinctly non-human names, and yet I know the meaning of each of their names, and they always seem to ‘fit’. My heroes always arrive with their name fully in place. I must say it is easier that way. I struggle most when I do have a story with humans and therefore human names to contend with, oddly enough.
    My current heroine is named Emelia… a combination of Amelia (like Earhart, as my girl is a tough independent explorer off on a grand adventure) and Emily. In my hero’s language it also resembles their word em’elea… which is the ‘familiar’ form of loved…aka beloved. It all fit together so nicely, I often wonder just who is ‘really’ doing the naming.

    • Pamela–
      Yes, being named for Samuel Richardson’s heroine saddles you with a legacy of “prudence and virtue.” As for the etymology (“in my hero’s language”) of the names you give your characters, that’s genuinely interesting. But I think you’ll need to be careful that explanations don’t slow down your narrative.

  20. I named my current MC from a naming book which I had accidentally brought in my non-writer days. I mostly start looking at what it sounds like, than see what that name exactly mean. If it has relation to my character, I will keep it. Otherwise I would dump it for future projects.

    • Kinza–
      Maybe you didn’t “accidentally” buy that naming book in your non-writing days. Maybe you already knew you’d need it, once you finally realized you were going to write.

  21. My fantasy heroes:

    Vengor was originally called Ivenjorr, which sounds like ‘avenger’ – he avenges someone. I changed his name because Vengor is less of a mouthful for a main character, but Ivenjorr is now the name of the man he aims to avenge, his ancestor.

    Anneth is a witch heroine of mine, but there’s no reason behind her name. I just like the sound.

    Gargon is a hobgoblin: his name is a corruption of gorgon, because he’s a humanoid monster, but it’s a bit subversive because he turns out to be a hero.

    Castor is a magician who casts spells, but I wouldn’t have kept the name if I hadn’t already liked it. It was only after naming him that I realised it was so obvious.

    Gon is a stealthy assassin, so one minute he’s there and the next he’s…

    Stütze is the shield maiden of a king; her name means ‘pillar’.

    Fen Wan is an eagle-woman named after the mythical bird fenghuang; her father is named Ziz.

    Zindra is a dragon with ‘dra’ at the end of his name… 😛 I actually had to make up special naming conventions for dragons so his name would sound less cheesy. He’s now called Zan-Zin-Dra, or Zindra for short. Zan is his clan, Zin is his given name and Dra denotes his species. (A dragon would call me, for example, Graham-Jacob-Hu.)

    There are many more, but there’s enough text here already.

  22. Jacob–
    The names you give your fictional family sound imaginative to me. I especially like the sonic connection between Vengor and his ancestor.

  23. I like to choose names that literally mean something. For instance, my thieving MC for my WIP is named Tyv, which means “thief” in Danish. Very simple, but I liked the way the name sounded too – short and sharp, just like Tyv’s personality. Tyv’s best friend, a very troubled fellow, who acts as a bit of a curse for everyone else he comes into contact with, who is trying to find peace from events in his past, has the name Amria Zelimir. Both names are Russian, and together literally mean “A curse looking for peace.” I gave the antagonist in that story a name that means “dark” and a last name (Durjaya) that means “hard to conquer.”
    In another story I am still planning out, the MC is named Mara Ebony Harrod. Mara meaning “bitter,” Ebony meaning “dark strength.” Since the MC is in a Negative Corruption Arc, I thought the names fit brilliantly.

    • I really like your choises.
      Do you have a blog? I’d like to know more about your story 🙂

      • I don’t, because I have no idea what I’d blog about. XD I keep hearing about how I should be doing self-promo, but…I’m scared. I thibk I should do it but I don’t know HOW. If you’ve got any tips I’ll be happy to hear them.

        • thomas h cullen says

          Hi Annika.

          I myself don’t blog (but then on that point, I’m only a one time author). What however I can say, is that blogging need not be methodical, or an activity requiring any such precision:

          Jennelle Faulkner, an author whose blog I followed, was random about her blogging; it’s something you can be immensely personal with, just sharing a particular state of mind, on a particular day, a funny observation about something, or a suggestions-for-reading list, etc etc.

          • Thanks. I’m getting closer to giving in and starting up a blog, so ideas and examples are very useful. 🙂

        • You know, for a long time I thought the same. What would I blog about? There’s nothing special about me. But then, last spring, I decided I wanted to try, because soon I’ll be sending out my work and I thought I should have a blog.

          Know what? I’m loving it 🙂

          I like meeting people and reading things I would have never read if not for my blog. I write about my subject matter, I write reviews for fellow dieselpunks, I host posts from them. I post snippets from my work. Trust me, when you start, you’ll know what to do 🙂

          • Thank you. I am leaning more and more toward doing it, so if I do I’ll let you know on this thread. 🙂

          • thomas h cullen says

            Blogging is all about creative freedom.

          • I was thinking about this again today, and I realized that I DO have a Pinterest account, which has boards in it related to my WIP. If you want, you can check them out here: You’ll be looking for the boards called “Taken: ____.” There are several, because I’m an organization hound. 😉

  24. I like to choose names that literally mean something. For instance, my thieving MC for my WIP is named Tyv, which means “thief” in Danish. Very simple, but I liked the way the name sounded too – short and sharp, just like Tyv’s personality. Tyv’s best friend, a very troubled fellow, who acts as a bit of a curse for everyone else he comes into contact with, who is trying to find peace from events in his past, has the name Amria Zelimir. Both names are Russian, and together literally mean “A curse looking for peace.” I gave the antagonist in that story a name that means “dark” and a last name (Durjaya) that means “hard to conquer.”
    In another story I am still planning out, the MC is named Mara Ebony Harrod. Mara meaning “bitter,” Ebony meaning “dark strength.” Since the MC is in a Negative Corruption Arc, I thought the names fit brilliantly.

    • thomas h cullen says

      Reading a post such as this – it makes you feel like the posts they’re a reply to possess more authority.

      • Thomas–
        If the post serves you, I’m pleased. Keep visiting K.M.Weiland’s site. It can only work to your advantage as a writer. “Helping Writers Become Authors” is one of the best. In fact, according to Writer’s Digest Magazine, it’s one of the 101 best websites for writers.

        • thomas h cullen says

          I’ll give you a special thanks for that. It was a comment, that was just random and spontaneous – yet through your own interpretation of it you saw fit to give me particular acknowledgement.

          Again, thanks.

          It is a good site, not least because of its being one where it’s writers do properly engage with its visitors.

          On the topic of writing: actually, I never was one. I’m just somebody who’s happened to have had the most remarkable of expressions in them…

          Croyan and Mariel’s life-story.

    • Annika–
      Very obviously, you are giving lots of thought to your characters’ names. And you seem to have a wide knowledge of languages, which gives you an edge in creating names with with specific meanings that relate to the characters. All good.

      • I seem to be having trouble with proofreading: please drop the second “with.”

      • I don’t really have much knowledge of languages at all, actually. I only speak English, but baby namimg sites and Microsoft Translate are both oh-so-helpful. I love creating character names, so yes, I put a lot of work into them. 🙂

  25. I named my two main characters somewhat by instinct. The female main character’s name is Ivy Darkvine and the male main character’s name is Jason (although I’m still working through his last name. Ivy’s name actually changed, something I rarely do. I usually find something that feels right and stick with it. I also feel like each name carries a certain connotation of either strength, cleverness, feminine-ness, etc.

    Ivy Darkvine was originally Vanessa Darkvine, and her character was darker and more mysterious as Vanessa, but as I got to know her better, I realized that Jason was really the darker, shadier one, and their personalities took a bit of a flip-flop. Vanessa seemed to maintain that dark side, but since she had evolved and was essentially a “new character” I changed her name to Ivy, but Darkvine has stayed as a remnant of Vanessa.

    Jason has become the dark-past, off-the-streets kid, who secretly has lycanthrophy which I want to subtly reveal through his last name. Any suggestions?

    • Dani–
      I’m going to offer a personal opinion, and that’s all it is. For myself, Vanessa Darkvine works better than Ivy Darkvine, and here’s why I think so: ivy is a vine, so making two references to “vine” bothers me. You offer a rationale for changing the name, but I don’t quite think it justifies the change. And, too, both ivy and darkvine refer to identifiable objects, like car and rose. For me, this starts creating associations that may not be intended. But as I say, this is purely persona.

  26. My MC’s name is Michael Red Willow, and I’ll admit it, as Barry suggested in his post, Michael is the name of a guy I had a crash on. Eh… what can I do about it?

    Red Willow, which is now his family name, is the translation of his Lakota name, Cansasa (which more precisely means ‘red willow bark’). I chose the name Cansasa originally only because I liked it sound, but as I looked more closely into it, the meaning slowly weaved its way into the story (the ‘cansasa’ has a very important place in Lakota spirituality). It was cool, a bit like the meaning chase after me 😉

    • Jazz–
      Very interesting history here, thanks for giving it to us. “Cansasa” being “red willow (bark) in the Lakota language seems to me to be loaded with intriguing possibilities. Are European characters in your story ignorant of what Cansasa actually means? If so, does your story include a love interest? If so again, does this relate to the love interest’s special relation to Red Willow? It seems full of possibilities.

      • Well, the other characters mostly don’t even know Michael’s Lakota name, he only uses it with his brother. So, no, the other characters don’t know the meaning of the name. But the reader will, eventually, as well as they will be aware (I hope) of the meaning it carries for Cansasa himself and his life.

        The story is set in 1926, which was a dire time for all Nations. Many of them were dwindling, and Michael’s story deals with his struggle with keeping his identity. So the fact that he cassies two names and that he only uses his Native name with his own brother, already has a meaning… I think.

        Yes, there is a love interest. She’s an Irish immigrant who’s also fighting to keep her ideantity in a completely new environment. And no, she’s not aware of Michael’s Lakota name.

        • Jazz–
          If you succeed in developing all the potential suggested the details you give, I think you’re going to produce something special. Outside Native American culture, I would think very few know about the particular hardships faced by the Nations during the Twenties. I certainly don’t. And the connection you plan to make between a young Irish woman also trying to maintain her identity adds depth and breadth to your story.

  27. I love naming characters almost as much as I love coming up with titles. For my current series of 3 books, they are one and the same. A main character in each book is featured in the title. Names for me often come from my sub-conscious. I either wake up knowing what a character’s name is or I’m trying to type the story with the name I’ve chosen and my fingers keep putting in a different name. Not everyone is happy with my process. My husband wasn’t thrilled at 3 am when I hit him with the announcement: ‘the book is called Sheldon Harris Came Home Dead’. The east coast expression fostered the title for book two and I used another eastern term: Home From Away. From the launch provided by my sub-conscious I move on to connecting to the story content for other character names. Connotation and ethnicity also come into play for me. Naming characters is fun, even if once in awhile you don’t quite get it right.

  28. Great article, and names are important!

    For me — in my (best selling 😉 ) YA fiction books, names were very important. Two of the characters in ‘The Fourth World’ have a supernatural link, and I wanted to have hints around that determine their naming.

    One is a Navajo girl called ‘Nizhoni’, which is the word for ‘beautiful’ in that tongue. The other is an Irish boy. One thing the Navajo have in common with Western society is the flood myth. One of Noah’s grand-daughters according to legend visited Ireland with a man called ‘Fintan’, giving me the name of my character.

    It ended up being a beautiful symmetry, and it helped me shape the characters into who they became over the course of the books.

    • thomas h cullen says

      Glad you spoke of “symmetry” – a recurring motif in The Representative.

      Are the boy and girl meant to each represent a half of the legend’s duo?

  29. Naming characters.

    I played a game called XCom: Enemy Unknown. In the game, you can hire soldiers to help you fight. The game will randomize over 20 countries of the world, and give names based on gender. I manage to find the file where it got the name, took out the xml code to get my list. I then went to wikipedia and behind the name to get the naming schema for the different countries. Even to the point of understanding patronymic names in Slavic countries.

    For my stories, I look through the names until I found one that sounded good. I first look for a first name, then a last name. If nationality is important, I then study the rules to how each name works.

  30. When I name my characters, I like to give them names that when you look up the meaning of their comes out as a bit of a joke. Whether it’s because the name describes the character or alludes to what the character will contribute to the story it doesn’t matter, so long as I get secret pleasure out of it. That way while I toil away on my book each time I write a characters name I can’t help but smile to myself. For instance in one of my books I wanted mostly Nature names for all my characters to fit the book so one is named Dodder, while her husband is named Rod. Dodders are a parasitic plant that cannot live on their own. They attach themselves to other plants and live off them. Though they rarely kill them they stunt growth. Commonly they attach to Goldenrods. Rod. I had a bit of a chuckle as it worked all too perfectly for their characters.

  31. Zhavannah Kyprianos. Miras, Tyrana, Ricardus Morgaine/Richard Morgan.

  32. In my first novel I named my central character ‘Dan Martin’ the were several reasons for this. I wanted him to have an Everyman sort of name, a ‘Dan the man’ as they say. I have also always had a fondness for people who have either to names that could be first names or two names that could be surnames.

    In my second novel I called one character Jason Flynn, as he was a journalist, and to me it had that old movie journalist ring to it.

    In my latest novel my central character is called Julia Draper. Julia just because I like the name, draper because she has so many levels that can’t be seen, like hey are draped.

  33. I’m writing my first novel/series… and I used the middle names of people I’m basing some of my characters. I just figured if I’m basing the character on a particular person I know… might as well use a part of her or his real name. Now if the person I’m using as a character and I don’t want them to know I gave that character a name that starts with the adobe letter as her or his name that would suit the character. My protagonist name is what she is… but because she is from a Mexican background I made it very Mexican with a nickname. Her mystery man/lover, I took from an online buddy of mine from Europe that we have had a cyber (sexytime) relationship with.

  34. This is one of my favourite tasks. Sometimes, it’s about the poetry of the name, or the rhythm of the spoken word. One of my characters hated her birth name (Mrthyl Sludgepuss Sideways) so much she invented and lobbied for an entirely new naming system where friends give each other names as presents (because parents frequently give their children the wrong names). This was such a success that she became so famous that everyone knew her real name and refused to use her donated one.

  35. Paul Richardson says

    After having the seed to start writing some years ago as a form of release from grief, the leading lady i based around my girlfriend. For the other characters, i had casually browsed artwork for inspiration and done some research for Asian names, mainly Chinese and Japanese.

  36. Mostly in my books I like to use very inventive names such as Aleigh, Ethemine, Oremay, Voralene, and the like. Usually they have no basis for the story and I picked them because I like the way it sounded about the character. However, I do have a character that has wings and I have suitably named her Angel. Also later in the story she has a daughter and I named her Anahera. Why? It is the Maori word for angel. I thought is was fitting and pretty.

  37. I am currently working on a story and or script for a story and the protagonist is a woman named Royal Blue Saphir, she was originally a princess so the name Royal was a minor call back to who she was in child hood. Blue is a household name for her family as members of her family are often named different shades of blue, she just happened to get Royal Blue and her father was Rich Indigo (or King Indigo by his peers and countrymen). Her mother and brother were different from she and her father because they were variations of yellow. Her mother was Shining Gold Sonne and her brother was Blazing Yellow Saphir. In her world using an adjective as a first name is not uncommon but being called by said adjective is strictly abnormal so as she was older being called Royal was an abnormal name and raised many questions.

    Also the majority of their naming choices comes from what color their hair is, so Royal and her father have blue hair…while Gold and Yellow have blond hair. Though there is one man in my story that has a title but not a full name, the Commander. I’m still working on his name but he’s still so early in development that his full personality hasn’t even come out yet. So maybe I’ll get back to you on that.

  38. Names have never been a problem for me, so I don’t really remember how I named most of my characters.
    Except for The Schellendorf series, which follows my most favourite protagonist of all time.
    His name at the beginning is Eric Foster. I just like the name Eric. Foster was a throwaway, a convenient middle-class name in Britain of 1912. Eric’s father is a respected London judge who got there by performance rather than by class.
    But when I take my protagonist, Eric, to Germany, I must give him a significant change of name that allows him to penetrate the highest levels of German society, and to be commissioned into an elite cavalry regiment without question, so that the story can unfold smoothly.
    No need to go into the story details: it’s the name that counts.
    Eric translated easily into Erich. No problem.
    For his German surname I hit the history books and found a German general, Paul Bronsart von Schellendorf, who had been Bismarck’s Minister of War in the 1880s. I then researched the name to find if there are any living descendants of this historical figure. When the way seemed clear, I gave the surname to Eric’s mother – which made it necessary to give his parents a backstory to explain (a) how an aristocratic German woman came to marry Eric’s father and live in England, and (b) her connection to the name. I made Bismarck’s general her uncle, not her father, which loosened the connection, in case any extant descendants turn up to complain.
    So my young protagonist, (ex-English) German cavalry officer, is Erich Bronsart von Schellendorf.
    I’ve always liked the ring of it.

    • thomas h cullen says

      Mine was an opposite experience to this. I respect the effort that you’ve made to unfold your own process out.

  39. Here is an interesting article on names in general and how they influence expectations of a person, and sonorous versus abrupt consonants (Anne, Sam, maluma vs Pop, Kirk, takete) in particular:

  40. I choose names very elaborately, like choosing realistic first & last names with interesting backstory.


  1. […] of us, Jade Varden asks: how well do you know your main character?, Barry Knister wants to know why you chose your character’s name, and K.M.Weiland boggles the mind by asking: should all minor characters have character […]

  2. […] Your Characters’ Names: Do You Know Why You Chose Them? […]

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