Names (character names or names for real people) are a big deal. Parents-to-be pore over baby name books for months looking for that “perfect” name.
You want the name to mean something, to be unique. You want it to fit your character perfectly. It should hint at the story that will come as we journey through the pages with this fictional person.
Just when we thought naming your character can’t get more stressful, it does. There are various ways to choose that perfect name and thousands of names to pick from.
Thankfully, there are some rules and tips to help us figure out which method of name picking will work the best for you and your new fictional friend.
7 Rules for Picking Character Names
No matter what name you pick, apply some common sense, and consider each of these tips before officially choosing a name.
Check Root Meanings
If you do decide on a real name, dig up its roots first. For example, Darth Vader isn’t revealed to be Luke’s corrupted father until the second Star Wars, but a diligent viewer could predict the twist from his name alone. When roughly translated from Dutch, it means “dark father.”
Readers are smart and have access to the internet. They will catch you in a blunder. If you want to give a cowardly character a name that means “lion,” go for it. But make sure they either live up to that meaning, or use it to make a point. A contradiction can work as long as it’s intentionally ironic.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind when looking up the origins and meanings of names: make sure it fits your story’s cultural aspects. That means that you need to think about why the character’s parents chose that name.
Were they immigrants from India that moved to North America to start a better life, but wanted to keep their culture alive? If that’s the case, does the name affect how the child is treated? Does the name have a special meaning in India that it doesn’t have in North America?
Get Your Era Right
Getting the era right becomes essential when working with historical fiction pieces. Readers expect you to name your characters by the period your story is in. Plus, names that were once popular may not be so today and vice versa. It’s always good to check.
Here are some great places to find era-appropriate names: government censuses, yearbooks, newspapers, obituaries, and reading books from your period.
Speak Character Names Out Loud
In the age of audiobooks and technology, your novel may have some translation issues when spoken aloud. An excellent way to work around this is to shout (shouting is optional) the name to the world yourself. A perfectly good name on paper, such as Adam Messina, may sound unclear aloud.
Make Them Distinguishable
Mary. Margot. Mindy. They’re all the same to the eyes of a reader.
Make sure that you play up around with names that start with different letters. You should also consider varying the number of syllables in the name, and which parts get more emphasis. It’ll help your character figure out who is who without relying on speech or behavioral cues.
Pick Easy-to-Remember Character Names
Defining who’s who in your story doesn’t just stop at making your characters stand out from each other by their name and personalities alone. You’ve got to make them memorable.
There are a couple of ways to distinguish one character from another; the first way is to use alliteration, i.e., Bilbo Baggins, Ratso Rizzo, or Severus Snape. Or you use that speaking out loud tip and find something that rolls off the tongue. There’s a bit of a science behind it, which you can read about in this Reddit thread.
Double Check Your Choice
There’s nothing worse than realizing you made a naming mistake after you’ve published your novel. So always make sure that you double-check the origins, meanings, and cultural references that may be embedded into your choice.
Cross-Reference Character Names Against Your Genre
Each genre has it’s own naming conventions and traditions. So the next time you’re reading a book, take notice of what names the authors use.
For example, you’re not going to see a name like “Galadriel” in a romance novel. Another consideration you’ll want to factor in your decision is the age of your audience.
You may want to keep your names simpler for YA or children audiences, no matter what genre you’re in. It’ll make the characters more memorable for younger audiences.
Methods for Choosing Character Names
There are 19 ways you can start looking for character names, according to Self-Publishing School. Do you have to try out all 19 methods? No.
Try a couple out and figure out what works best for you, your book, and your genre. And I’m not going to list all 19 methods here, but I will tell you what I like to us.
Baby Name Books and Websites
This is, by far, one of the most widely-used options out there for writers. Baby names are a wealth of information on origins, name meaning, and spelling variations. Some websites will also know what names were popular in what years.
Here are some websites and books to check out:
- Baby Name Wizard
- Baby Name Center
- Baby Names
- Babble Baby Names
- Beyond Ava & Aiden: The Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz
- Baby Names 2020: This Year’s Best Baby Names: State to State by Eleanor Turner
- Baby Names: Unique Baby Names with Spiritual Meanings for Boys and Girls by Suzanne Thomas
- A Is for Atticus: Baby Names from Great Books by Lorilee Craker
- The OTHER Baby Name Book by Sheri Knight
- Baby Names: How to Choose the Perfect Name for Your Baby Including Thousands of Names with Meaning and Origin by Christy Malone
Character Name Generators
I love using name generators for last names in particular. Finding the right first name seems to be the easy part for me. My brain usually draws a blank for the last name, though.
That’s where a name generator can come in handy. So, here are some of the top character name generators:
- Character Name Generator – You can fill in several different fields, such as age, personality traits, nationality, etc., to produce a character name that fits best. I use this one. It’s good, but make sure to get as many suggestions as you can.
- Fantasy Name Generator – This generator offers several different options for theme-based character names for your fantasy book.
- Name Generator for Fun – You can choose from several categories, like villain names, rap names, superhero names, etc.
- Name Generator – This generator allows you to narrow in on details about your character for a more fitting name. However, this one has more real-life names than uniquely created.
- Writer’s Character Name Generator – While very random, this one may just allow you to stumble upon your next main character’s name.
- Reedsy’s Character Name Generator – Reedsy’s generator can help you create names from different categories. The names come complete with a first and last name as well as the meaning behind the name.
There’s also this thing called a name translator, which allows you to discover names in other languages. The catch here is that you already have to have a name in mind for it to work.
Real-Life Character Names
You can also go with the real-life approach. Every person that you’re related to or know can be a source of names to draw from. There are also several other places where you can draw name inspiration from, such as:
- movie credits
- mashup names from other writers, artists, celebrities, etc.
- high school yearbooks
- phone books
- an encyclopedia (there are many weird mountain names or regions that your character might be named after. This works exceptionally well for you science fiction and fantasy writers.)
- mash up your pet’s name with a street name
Honestly, there are many ways to come up with character names from real-life inspiration.
However, going this route does come with a risk. If someone doesn’t like how you represented them, they may get mad at you and stop talking to you (in the case of family and friends) or sue you for character defamation (worst case scenario).
For your family and friends, try to warn them ahead of time with their character. That way, they won’t be surprised. As for strangers, avoid using middle names to ensure that you’re legitimately not using someone’s given name.
One-of-a-Kind Character Names
You don’t have to use baby books, generators, or someone familiar to come up with the perfect character name. You’re allowed to pull one out of thin air.
We’re writers, right? We’re fantastic at making things up, and we don’t need to restrict our creativity when it comes to names. So figure out what you like meaning wise and incorporate it into whatever name you’re making up. Play with the constants and syllables until it sounds right to you and fits your character.
You can also ask your social media followings for suggestions. We all know the internet is a strange and wonderful place, and some of their answers may surprise you.
Keep This in Mind When Creating Character Names
Along with our rules and methods, there are other things to keep in mind when coming up with character names.
Ah, nicknames. You’ve either got a great one, a bad one or are wishing for one. And your characters might be thinking the same. Nicknames can also say a lot about a character and the people that use them.
For example, Huckleberry Finn is called “Huck” for the novel’s entirety. The only character who uses his full name is the strict Miss Watson. The prevalent use of this nickname signals his reluctance to grow up or become “sivilized.” Miss Watson’s use of his full name nods to her desire to civilize.
Just make sure that the nickname fits the character and doesn’t resemble another character’s name too closely.
Getting feedback on character names is a great job for you to hand over to your beta readers. The name will be fresh for them, and they can tell you if the name fits the character or if it needs reworking. They can also tell you if the name doesn’t sound right or they don’t understand it.
Avoid Famous Names
I’m going to leave it up to the NY Book Editors to explain this one:
Avoid choosing names that have become famous in pop culture or infamous in annals of history. Unless you have a pretty good and intentional reason for using these names, don’t do it. Otherwise, you could end up turning your character into a caricature of a historical figure.
Sorry, everyone, no Beyonce’s, Elvis’s, or Hitler’s.
You Can Always Change It
You are the writer, the creative genius behind your story. You can do whatever you want with it. If you decide that Troy or Mildred are no longer proper names for your leading man and lady, change it. Come up with something new, something better. Change their names hundreds of times until you find one that fits.
And if you don’t have a clue as to what to call your main character, leave it blank until the end. Or go back to your character development notes and figure out who your character truly is.
Like with editing, picking a character name can go on and on until you finally just stick with something you like. There’s no such thing as the perfect name.
The name is just one way you can hook readers and build a relationship with them and your book. Your character still has to do the heavy-lifting of moving your plot towards the end.
No matter what name you go with, don’t overthink it too much. And have fun coming up with the ordinary and wacky names that you’ve created for your characters.
What’s your favorite character name? Have you come up with any character names that you’re particularly proud of?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.