What’s in a Name? Picking the right name for your characters

If you are a parent, you know how much you labored over the perfect name for your child. Now imagine you need to do the same thing for over a dozen or more characters. Yikes!

It can certainly be a daunting task. Of course, the most thought goes into your main character’s name. You want a name that is unique to your character, that your reader will remember, and that fits into your story, whether it be a fantasy, futuristic, historical or modern piece.

Here are some tips when choosing your characters names.

  • Pick a name that is age-appropriate. Don’t pick names that are popular now for an adult character – a name that would have rarely been used around the time of that character’s birth. Decide the age of your character and then calculate the year your character was born. If your character was born in the U.S., browse through the Social Security Name Popularity List for that year.
  • HISTORICAL NOVELS – you will want to look for a name popular or at least in use during the time period you have chosen. Do not pick a modern name (such as Jennifer) for a story set in the 17th century.
  • Remember to take into account your character’s ethnic background and the ethnic background of his or her parents. But be careful about stereotyping ethnic characters with clichéd names. You can be more original than “Bubba” or “Running Bear.”
  • Steer clear of complicated, hard-to-pronounce names. If you do choose one, consider using a nickname to make it easier to the reader and other characters.
  • Don’t overuse unusual names or spellings. If your main character is Barnabus, name his sidekick Sam or Eric, not Hawthorne.
  • You should avoid having characters with similar names. You may also want to stay away from names that start with the same letter or same sound – like Phil and Fred.
    • Avoid nicknames or unusual names that will annoy the reader. For example, calling a man by what is traditionally a woman’s name or vice versa can create unnecessary confusion. So do this only if there is a real need for it in your story.
    • When you pick a name, say it out loud and use it in dialogue to make sure it sounds good.
    • FANTASY/SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS – Avoid the temptation to use a random collection of letters and symbols for a character name. Even though your reader probably won’t be reading your story aloud, they will mentally trip over unpronounceable names. You can of course get around this by using a nickname for the character to make it easier for the reader and the other characters.
    • FUTURISTIC/SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS – It’s hard to predict what names will be popular in the year 3000. But again, you don’t want them to stumble over an odd collection of letters. You might consider combining two common names to make a less common, but pronounceable name. Example: Donica (Donna and Veronica).

I find a baby-naming book to be a great resource for names. I use 20,001 Names for Baby (1992). But to find a name you can try a baby naming website or even your phone book. Of course don’t just pirate someone’s full name. Mix and match first and last names.

The name you choose should reveal something about the character: who they are, where they come from or where they are going. A good character name is distinctive and memorable. A great character name, in addition to being distinctive and memorable, also works to help tell your story.

The name you give your characters is just as important as naming your own child. Take the task seriously and give it some thought (or research) before settling on their moniker.

5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Picking the right name for your characters

  1. I never really thought of the historical novels entry and that is such a good point!

  2. Great thoughts. I like babynamesworld.parentsconnect.com because it has a meaning search function, for an extra layer of nuance (or safeguard against unintentional hint-dropping).

  3. […] Here are some tips when naming character. (For more information, you can also read my original post on picking the right name for your character.) […]

  4. […] name is to peruse a baby naming book. (For general tips in naming characters, check out my original post.) The baby book I have (picked up at a used-book store) has a lot of unusual names. It worked for […]

  5. […] with writing/publishing, I often do the same thing. If I am trying to name/develop characters or build my own world, I blog about that. If I am editing my novel, then I write […]

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