What’s in a name? Think about your own name and imagine if it were something else—Fred, Elvis, Alourast? Names can make or break a story. Too many like-sounding names in a story can throw the reader off and confuse them. I have a hard time coming up with that perfect name for my characters. I used to carry a 3×5 notebook around with me to jot down plotline ideas and names when they would pop into my head—I need to start doing that again.
What I’m saying is, keep your mind clicking at all times with name ideas. You never know when that perfect moniker is going to pop up, and if it doesn’t, there are always ways to find it. You can always check out name generators online—I have listed the top 9 at the beginning of this post for you to run through. Or, as I used to do as well, is use first names from your friends and family and last names from movies, tv, or the newspaper.
Either way, you will come up with that great name eventually. A name that defines your character and pulls him from the pages of your book. Below are a couple of articles on how to choose a name. They are both filled with good advice, and as I mentioned above, there is a list of name generators for you to visit and play around with. There is also a video on naming characters from a great YouTuber. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
Random Name Generators:
10 Tips for Choosing Character Names
If you’re a writer, one of the first and most exciting things you’ll do is name your cast of characters. You’d think it would be like naming your imaginary friends as a kid, or your dolls, or even your children. But it’s not.
One major mistake writers make is thinking that they, the author, name their characters. They do not. So, if you don’t choose the character’s name, then who does? Well, go inside your fictional world and ask the question again. The answer: your character’s parents choose the character name. So you must give some thought into the character’s backstory (and his/her parents) before choosing a character name. Now that you’re in the right mindframe, here are some other tips to consider before naming your fictional characters:
- Make the name age appropriate
Decide the age of your character. Deduct that age from the year your story takes place. For example, if your story takes place in 1960 and your character is 25, she was then born in 1935. If your character lives in the United States, use the U.S. Social Security site to see the most popular names for that year.
- Make the name easy to pronounce
Readers pronounce names in their head as they are reading. If they stumble on a word or name, it will take them out of your story. If you are writing a screenplay, you don’t want a name that is difficult to pronounce for your actors’ sake.
- Consider your character’s background
A family’s ethnicity, history, and geographic location are tantamount in baby naming. Even if it’s a minor character in your story, take the time to figure out his backstory, his ethnicity, his parents’ backgrounds, the parents’ personalities, and a name that fits. Also consider location of birth and generation. A fifth-generation Italian child may not be named Lorenzo if he’s born in Ohio in 1980. He might just be named Jason.
- Don’t use similar names for two characters
Using two similar names will be confusing to the reader/consumer of your story. Kirk and Kent, for example, might trip people up. Even when naming twins, be careful that they are unique enough to differentiate to the viewer/reader.
- But give your siblings the same style of names
Very rarely will parents change their naming styles when naming children. If one child has a traditional name, it would be rare that another would have a created or wild name. If you want a sibling to have a different type of name, make it a nickname (with a secret traditional name). For example, a woman named Skyler probably would not have a sister named Marie (Breaking Bad). If I had to correct that, I’d name them Skyler and Reese.
- Consider your genre
Romance novel characters have historically been given more flowery, romantic names. Sci-fi characters most often have created names (see tip #8). Consider your genre before naming your characters. Hopefully you have read many works within your genre (all good writers do). Follow suit.
- Avoid famous name association
There are certain names in our culture that are easily identified with famous or infamous personalities. Adolf, Oprah, Kanye, Madonna, to name a few. Unless it is part of your character’s story or background, avoid using easily-associative names. This also applies to fictional names, as well, like Atticus, Scarlett, or Katniss.
- Sci-Fi names don’t have to sound alien
It’s difficult to predict what names will be popular in the year 3000, however you don’t have to make your science fiction characters sound like they are from Mars (unless they are). As stated in Tip #2, the name should still be easy to pronounce in the reader’s head. The name Zyxnrid, for example, would be difficult to read or listen to every time the character is referenced—and may detract from your overall story. If you do choose to create your sci-fi name, you may want to:
- Combine two common names to make a less common, but pronounceable name. Example: Donica (Donna and Veronica).
- Use ancient mythological names, or combine two of them. Example: Ceres or Evadne.
- Make it easy to pronounce and spell. Example: Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings.
- Avoid using character names in dialogue
It’s a soap opera thing that has spilled over into serial television. If you have characters that have an especially close relationship, they would not keep saying each other’s name. This is often a trick of screenwriters to identify their characters, especially for new viewers who are just tuning in. However good writers can establish the relationship in less obvious ways.
In real life, couples will use nicknames and terms of endearment (honey, dear, boo). What nicknames have your characters created for each other? Parents rarely call their children by their full names–unless the kid is in trouble. If you have loving parent characters that are addressing their kids, use a nick name or term of endearment (sweetie, baby, D.J.). An exception to this would be if you want to show the parent character being cold and distant to their child.
That being said, outdated terms like “Sis” and “Cuz” rarely crop up in natural, normal conversation. But they are all over television, especially pilots. Instead of having your character constantly calling her “Sis,” have him ask if she’s “Heard from Mom today?” or ask another character, “Don’t I have the best sister ever?”
- Have fun choosing character names
Take time to see what “fits.” What was your character’s childhood nickname? Is that an embarrassment when his parents address him in front of his friends? Did your character change his name at any point in his/her life? If so, why? Does your female character want to change her surname when she gets married? Why or why not? Names are such an important part of one’s identity, don’t take it lightly. A name can provide great insight and backstory to a character if you do it right.
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.”
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 literature itself:
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)?
FOR MORE EXCELLENT ADVICE FROM ELIZABETH SIMS, CHECK OUT:
The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Your Fictional Characters
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.
Surf the Original Web.
For real inspiration, I suggest going over to your local library, where you’ll be amazed at the wealth of name stuff you’ll find in the reference department. Besides general encyclopedias, which are rife with names from all eras, you’ll find encyclopedias on every specialized subject from military history to music, sports, radio and television, steamships and railroads, law enforcement, crime and more. All of these books are crammed with names. The real pay dirt in your library is in the genealogy section. Here you’ll find books packed with names from all over the world, along with dates, cities and other location names, too. You might even get ideas for characters right out of those books—or whole plots, for that matter. That’s the serendipity of browsing, the fostering of which physical libraries are still unsurpassed.