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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 ^^

  11. How would you go about coming up with names for characters in a fantasy setting and historical ones??
    I can come up with contemporary names well enough but finding and coming up with enough authentic names for fantasy and historical is hard.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You can find lots of name generators online. Usually, I just make up whatever comes to mind. I try to use respectively consistent etymological constructions for the names belonging to people of different countries or cultures.

      • Interesting.
        But how do you accomplish having relatively consistent etymological constructions??

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Generally, I’ll select a real-world language/country as my foundation and work off that. For example, in a recent book, I mirrored Gaelic, Spanish, Italian, and Norwegian for various ethnicities within my fantasy world.

          • Ohhh
            How did you effectively managed to mirror these langusges tho??

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Look for linguistic patterns and mimic them.

          • Ah could you give me an example in how you mimic linguistic patterns? As I have a trouble with this. Particularly an example from your book Dreamlander which I have read.
            Also how would make names for characters in historical fiction? I have used names from famous people during that period for my characters but those are limited and I would end up using the same name again and again.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            If you’re familiar with the language, just look for letter patterns. For example, I had characters from an Italian-like setting who I named Iovolo.

            For historical fiction, I will usually keep a running list of names I come across in my research. I can then choose names for my characters from that list.

  12. 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: https://qz.com/1690394/how-your-name-defines-how-people-think-about-you/

  13. I am a “namer” – I have a name Instagram page and YouTube channel where I’ve made videos talking about names. They fascinate me! But I’ve been struggling with naming my characters in my current story idea. I’ve had the idea for 11 years, but the 2 protagonists both have names beginning with A – Alice and Augusta! Their nicknames are Sally and Gussie, but this story is set in the late 1800s, when their real names would be used quite often when being introduced to people and such. Their names both happen to mean ‘noble’, but I’m considering changing Alice to Matilda (Tillie), which means ‘mighty battle maiden’, and changing Augusta to Bridget (Bridie), which means ‘strong’. But it’s hard when I’ve had these particular names in my head for so long!

    A male character’s name is Alexander Findlay, which was chosen for its meanings, but … it starts with A! An antagonist in my story is Jabez Campbell – Jabez means ‘he who brings sorrow’ and Campbell means ‘crooked mouth’ (i.e. liar).

    Ahh, choosing names can be so interesting, but so difficult!

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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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