How to Name Characters

Naming characters can be a breeze or it can make you want to rip your hair out. The perfect name may come naturally, or it’s something to work on. A name can make or break a character and maybe even a book. Read on for naming tips.

WHERE TO FIND NAMES?

Random Name Generator

Stuck for a name? There are a number of random name generators online for free. Google ‘random name generator’. Many generators have filters for sex or culture that can be applied. Some writing apps, such as Scrivener, have name generators inbuilt. Usually, first names and surnames are offered using generators. 

Baby Name Books or Websites

Back before the internet took off, I purchased a couple of baby naming books for quick inspiration. They proved to be a great resource and freed up many agonising hours trying to conjure the perfect name. The meaning of names is also useful. Sometimes we want a character’s name to be symbolic. For example, Scarlet is a shade of red, and red suggests a feisty personality.

Nowadays, a Google search for ‘baby names’ will bring up a number of websites that provide the same information as baby books, but for free. Unfortunately, baby names only focus on first names. Another source might be required for surnames. Names can also be searched for by meaning.

CONSIDERATIONS WHEN NAMING A CHARACTER

Similar Names

A story features a cast of characters… well, usually more than one. Perfect names may suit characters, but on paper… eek. Names that look alike will generally confuse readers or disrupt the reading flow as readers reconsider who is who. Juleen and Jayleen sound and look alike — perfect names for identical twins (maybe… or maybe some parents are cruel). Even on paper, it’s an effort to differentiate these names apart. Most readers are lazy readers. Easier the read, the better. Try assigning characters with names starting with different letters. However, Juleen & Kayleen might still be too much despite starting with different letters. The ‘leen’ part is the same. Some character names can be shortened (or lengthened) to work as a collective. Julie and Kay work together.

Name Design

Typically, readers want an easy read. As a writer, if you want to capture a wide audience, use names easy to pronounce. For some readers, not being able to pronounce a name is frustrating and makes for a challenging read. Reader tolerance is an individual preference or skill set. I can handle a handful of unique names if they look different. My brain translates the name to the first letter and size. I know readers who can only cope with a couple of unique names, anymore, and characters get muddled in their heads. Other readers may have no issue.   

My recommendation is to spell names as they sound. If a character has a hard to pronounce name, can the name be shortened? Don’t unnecessarily change the spelling of common names. You risk the name standing out like a sore thumb, sacrificing a smooth read. Most fiction books are written at about a grade 5 level to cater to the general population.

There are always exceptions, and the above considerations are a general guide. A story set in a particular culture is bound to employ native names unique to the culture. The fantasy genre encourages made-up names. These non-English names add texture to the text. 

WHEN WRITING ON THE FLY

Place Holder Names

When we are in the middle of writing a story, naming characters can slow us down and disrupt the flow. Have a handful of generic names ready to use as a placeholder. The names can be changed later if need be. Search/find and change on a word processor does the tick. 

In one of my writing groups, we wrote to writing prompts for 20 minutes. Instead of wasting precious time wracking my brain for a name, I, and one of my mates, used the stock name Bob (Bobby for a girl) for every story we wrote. In turn. we created an in-group joke. In current times, I’ve deviated from Bob, and have a number of generic names ready — John, Nick, Sarah, Claire, Niki, XXX. I’ve done the same thing when working on novels.

Warning: sometimes a character becomes attached to their assigned stock name, making a rename difficult. Oh, first-world problems. 

THE CHECKLIST

Questions to Ask When Naming Characters

Names say a lot about a character from their sex to their status and culture. Below are a series of questions and considerations you can run a name through to make sure the moniker suits your character, or the list can point you in the right direction before name hunting.

  • Is the character’s name male, female or unisex?
  • Nickname? Some characters go by a nickname more fitting than a birth name. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Spike is more fitting for his role as a mean vampire than his human name, William. 
  • Common name or unique name? Common names are relatable, unique names imply a specialness.
  • Identify the era, culture, and setting. Names come and go depending on the era. Different cultures have their own names or variants. A fantasy story may use made-up names.
  • Identify the feel of the character. A porn star’s name is different from a 1950s housewife’s name. Dirty Dancing’s Baby’s name works for the nieve teen because the name suggests immaturity, but for a mature woman, the name suggests something else (let’s not go there).
  • Consider character status. Names like William, Edward, and Henry are traditional royal names. Is the character named after someone? An upper-class character might use a full version of their name rather than a shortened version, for example, Elizabeth rather than Lizzie.

STILL NOT SURE?

When I was plotting one of my ImmorTales installments, I called the hero ‘Gunner’ (don’t judge me, I needed something easy, old, and Dutch). My writing buddy, come slave driver, turned up his snotty nose. The name gave him a milliary tough guy type impression. After consideration and pouting, I decided I couldn’t argue, and the character was reissued with a new name. A name that isn’t liked could turn readers off (unless the character is unlikeable in which case, go for it). The hard part is, detesting a name is subjective. If you’re not sure, ask a friend. 

How do you name your characters?



Categories: Characters, Writing

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. So far, names haven’t been a choke-point for me. In life I toss away given names in favor of nicknames showing respect or humor – remembering real names has been an embarrassment for me, sobriquets stick.

    In fiction, I’ve named characters only to have them take over the story and force name changes. Interesting read this morning. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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