You have the idea for your character and mostly everything they think, do, and experience. But, what do their friends call them? Fred, Eddy, Bud—hopefully not. You need a name that rings true to their personality and actions. Thor, now that’s a name to fit a character. Willy Wonka, who can say that didn’t fit the persona of the man himself. When it comes to character names, you need a moniker that tells a story in itself. Specific names have certain feels, and that feel can bring emotion to your reader that dialogue and action alone cannot. We all automatically judge people on their names before we meet them—online dating is full of Max Powers and Lillian Lusts—just kidding. But a name carries much weight with it, and a mighty name can lead to powerful character traits. So, here are a few articles on how to choose that perfect name and at the end I have listed some name generating websites to help you out if need be. And, as always, here is a video discussing this very subject😊
Namedropping: Finding Solid Names for Your Unique Characters
By: Elizabeth Sims
The auditorium was dark except for a pool of light at the center of the stage. One of my all-time heroes, Joyce Carol Oates, was giving a guest lecture at my school, Michigan State University. As her book jacket photos suggested, she was a waif, standing there so pale behind the microphone, with a voice like a small stringed instrument.
I was an intense young writer of short stories, and to this day I remember part of her lecture word for word.
She spoke about her deep feeling for her characters, and her commitment to creating just the right character names for each one. I thought of how her characters stuck into me like darts, and I realized that some of their power came from their names: the creepy Arnold Friend in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The doomed Buchanan in “Wild Saturday.” The primeval Sweet Gum and Jeremiah in “The Death of Mrs. Sheer.”
This guest post is by bestselling author and writing authority Elizabeth Sims. She’s the author of seven popular novels in two series, including The Rita Farmer Mysteries and The Lillian Byrd Crime series. She’s also the author of the excellent resource for writers, You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, published by Writer’s Digest Books.
Getting the names right requires patience, she said, and sometimes it’s hard. She said that occasionally in her sleep a character she had invented but not named would appear before her and stand in silence. Oates extended her thin white arm, hand cupped. “And I ask, ‘What is your name? Tell me your name!’”
Since then, I’ve taken character naming very seriously. It’s something far too many writers neglect. The best authors know that a fitting name for a character is a precious gift to readers. Some names resonate as miniature poems, whether masculine or feminine:
- Dracula (Dracula, Bram Stoker)
- Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote)
- Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)
- Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray)
- James Bond (Dr. No and others, Ian Fleming)
- Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell)
- Mr. Skimpole (Bleak House, Charles Dickens)
- Mrs. Gummidge (David Copperfield, ditto)
- Little Toot (Little Toot, Hardie Gramatky)
- Cinderella (folktale, timeless)
Like Oates, you’re rarely going to come up with that terrific name instantly; you’ll have a character who demands to be born, and you’ll have to start writing him or her (or it) without a name. In such cases I use “Evil Cutie” or “Brother A” until I can really work on a name.
I’m against using nonsense names as some authors do for ease of typing during their draft phase. “Jiji,” for instance, uses just the first two fingers on your right hand, in the central part of the keyboard, and it could definitely save you keystrokes during the course of a long novel, especially if your character ends up being “Charlotte Summerington.” However, there is more to writing fiction than saving keystrokes. Every character’s name interacts with you as you write, melding with your ideas and feelings for the character. You don’t want to stay dissociated from your characters’ names for any longer than necessary.
Dickens is great to study for character names. He wrote most of his novels as long magazine serials; their character-packed success depended on every name being quickly and easily distinguished in the reader’s mind—and held there from one month to the next. Contemporary British authors must have inherited some of his DNA, because they tend to be terrific namers too (more on them in a moment).
If you think about it, character names come in two basic breeds: those with carefully crafted meanings, and those that simply fit your players like a silk suit, inexplicably perfect. We’ll look at both kinds, along with strategies for creating them.
TYPE 1: Layered Names
First up are the “meaningful” names, which pull back the skin of your characters and can be analyzed quite like
Large chunks of Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling 44 Scotland Street series concern the difficult life of Bertie Pollock, an Edinburgh schoolboy. Two of his schoolmates are lads named Larch and Tofu. Though minor characters, they’re there for a distinct purpose.
The names interact with a savory irony. Tofu and Larch’s names obviously have been bestowed by parents with finely tuned ideals. Political correctness abounds: One boy’s name is a legume paste, the other a tree. Yet the characters, we learn from their actions and words, are as shallow and phony-hearted as their names are sophisticated.
Smith gives us, by contrast, the simple, direct, honest Bertie. He is worth more than both Tofu and Larch put together. His is an ordinary, unpretentious name; his surname, Pollock, is a common fish. Bertie, then, is the humble everyman who must endure everybody else’s idiotic, self-serving vanities.
But for pure triumphal irony, can anything top the Veneering family, of Dickens’ classic Our Mutual Friend? Such a vaguely grand-seeming name for a vaguely grand family. Simultaneously, of course, their name clues us in that they are nothing but surface. And we enjoy watching them try—and fail—to live up to their banal aspirations.
Ironic names are easy to create: Just think of your character’s opposite qualities and brainstorm liberally. Let’s say you’ve got a clumsy guy who lives with his parents and aspires merely to avoid work and download porn. You could give him an ironic name like Thor or Victor or Christian or even Pilgrim. Or you could give him a first name that’s a family surname, like Powers or Strong.
Authors who want to use ironic character names should strictly limit themselves to one per story or novel.
We love symbolic names—sometimes. Carson McCullers, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, manages a good one with John Singer, a deaf-mute who essentially acts as the prophet in the story. Harry Angstrom, the hero of John Updike’s Rabbit books, has, I think, a particularly good symbolic name. First of all we have angst right in there. Then, as you’ll remember from science class, an angstrom is a teeny-tiny unit of length. An allegory for a man who feels his life is too small—and who by his actions shows that he might also be a bit insecure about a certain part of his anatomy?
Be warned, though: Symbolic names are treacherous shoals for authors. Way too many novels (first or otherwise) feature bad guys named Grimes and heroes with some form of truth or justice incorporated into their names. Also, we have too many heroines with the word sun in their names, more detectives called Hunter or Archer or Wolf than we can count, and multitudes of good guys with the initials J.C. (Jesus Christ).
Here’s the key: Symbolic names work only if they’re not heavy-handed. Challenge any symbolic name with the question: Would a 12-year-old get it during a first reading? If yes, trash it! Keep looking for something subtle, based on your character’s deepest traits, or use another approach, like:
A connotative name suggests without being explicit.
For instance, in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the handsome hunting guide is straightforwardly named Richard Wilson, while the client he cuckolds has the fussy name of Francis Macomber. (For some reason in Western culture, Francis sounds sissy-ish, perhaps because it’s similar to the feminine form, Frances. A fair number of spoiled pantywaists in literature bear that name; Scout’s nauseating cousin in To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind.) In the end, however, Macomber achieves true heroism (albeit briefly!), while Wilson is stuck with Macomber’s sexy, monstrous widow, Margot.
Another example: Draco Malfoy in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Here we have the root suggestions of dragon (draco is Latin for it) and malformed, malice and malfeasance. A great many other Rowling characters are perfectly named.
You can make up connotative names by asking yourself questions like these as you brainstorm your characters: What expression is on his face when he looks in the mirror in the morning? If she were an animal, what would she be? If this character were a building or a political party or a piece of furniture, what would he be? How is her self-image at odds with reality?
Phonetically Suggestive Names
Dickens again. In his masterpiece Bleak House, he tells the story of the mother of all lawsuits, “Jarndyce and Jarndyce.” And the suit drags on, and your flesh creeps as that name hammers at you throughout the book: jaundice, jaundice, jaundice.
Ayn Rand’s despicable character Wesley Mouch (weasly mooch) from Atlas Shrugged is a pretty good example of a name that sounds like an epithet.
Let’s make up a phonetic name that fits a character. What if we had a coach who gambled on his basketball team? Well, it’s about winning and losing, and it doesn’t matter which if you can make money betting either way. Winning, Winton, Win, Lose, Fail, Failer.
How about Winton Fayhler (win failer)?
Type 2: Plain Names
What of names that have no hidden meaning, but just play off the ear like powerful verse?
- Howard Roark (The Fountainhead, Rand)
- Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy)
- Frankenstein (Frankenstein, Mary Shelley)
- Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams)
Such names are the holy grail of authors. You know them when you see them—the rhythm, the grace, the style!—but defining them is almost impossible. Fortunately, it’s also irrelevant. What we need are ways to generate those lovely combinations of consonants and vowels.
Judging by successful character names, it seems a strong first syllable in both first and last names works well, regardless of the number of syllables. (Harry Potter, Jo March, Robinson Crusoe.)
Here’s how you can generate pure plain good names:
Collar them in your dreams.
Awaiting inspiration is perhaps the most organic way to name your characters, though it could take some time. Seriously, though, often you’ll be working with a character and his name—complete, perfect, incontrovertible—will simply pop into your head. It can happen while you’re writing, or weighing plums at the grocery, or drifting in dreamland. Accept these pieces of luck as your due. Expect them.
Remember phone books? Leaf through yours, and try putting different first and last names together. Phone books, however, are usually limited regionally. If you live in a small town in Minnesota, for instance, you’re going to find a whole lot of Johnsons and Olsons but not many Garciaparras and Hoxhas. I keep a couple of baby-name books handy when I’m in the early stages of an outline or draft. I also save commencement programs.
Surf the Web.
You can go online and find helpful reference sites that list first names and surnames by national origin, and you’ll find sites that tell you name meanings, etc. You’ll also find assorted sites that simply generate names. Browse around.
The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters
Choosing a character name for your novel is as pressure-filled as picking a name for a baby. It has to suit the character’s personality, makes sense for the era and, most important, be super awesome (sorry friends, the awesome name of Brian A. Klems is already taken by this guy). Names like Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield and Stephanie Plum are memorable not just because of the amazing stories they navigate, but also because these names “fit” those characters so well. You need a name that “fits” your character too.
I stumbled upon these seven great rules for choosing character names offered up by popular mystery writer Elizabeth Sims (the Rita Farmer Mysteries). When developing characters—no matter what sort of characters you’re pursuing—heed common sense and consider each of these tips before choosing a name.
- Check root meanings.
It’s better to call a character Caleb, which means “faithful” or “faithful dog,” than to overkill it by naming him Loyal or Goodman—unless you want that for comic/ironic purposes. Some readers will know the name’s root meaning, but those who don’t might sense it.
- Get your era right.
If you need a name for an 18-year-old shopgirl in a corset store in 1930s Atlanta, you know enough not to choose Sierra or Courtney, unless such an unusual name is part of your story. Browse for names in the era you’re writing. A Depression-era shopgirl who needs a quick name could go by Myrtle or Jane; it will feel right to the reader. Small public libraries will often have decades’ worth of local high school yearbooks on the shelves. Those things are gold for finding name combinations from the proper era.
- Speak them out loud.
Your novel might become an audiobook or an e-book with text-to-speech enabled. A perfectly good name on paper, such as Adam Messina, may sound unclear aloud: Adam Essina? Adah Messina?
- Manage your crew appropriately.
Distinguish your large cast of characters by using different first initials, of course, and vary your number of syllables and places of emphasis. Grace Metalious (a great name right there) demonstrates this in her blockbuster Peyton Place, as do any of the successful epic writers like James Michener and Larry McMurtry.
- Use alliterative initials.
Employ this strategy to call special attention to a character: Daniel Deronda, Bilbo Baggins, Ratso Rizzo, Severus Snape.
- Think it through.
You might notice that in most crime fiction the murderer rarely has a middle name or initial. Why? Because the more you explicate the name, the more likely there’s a real person out there with it. And reading your story they might become upset and try to sue you or come after you some night with a bayonet.
- Check ’em again.
When writing my novel The Actress, I needed a name for a Japanese-American criminal defense attorney, and the name Gary Kwan burst upon me. I loved the name and used it in the book. Only thing was, as soon as the thousands of copies of hardcovers were printed and shipped to stores, I heard from a reader who pointed out the simple fact that Kwan is a Chinese surname. I cursed loudly and decided: a) that I would ALWAYS check name origins, and b) that Gary Kwan had a Chinese grandfather who adopted a Japanese orphan who became Gary’s father. Or something like that.
Character Name Generators: