A Writer’s Guide: Naming Characters

When it comes to writing novels, names often get overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Most of us are happy if we can tell who is talking and we can remember the character’s names for the entirety of the book, but bad names can ruin a book. I don’t know about you, but when I get ahold of a book where the main character’s name is a comical 20-character tangle I can’t pronounce, it ruins the book for me. It’s hard to take a book, or a character, seriously when you want to roll your eyes every time you read the narrative.

In this article I’ve compiled a list of things to consider when naming a character for a novel, and though it’s pretty simple, I hope it serves to help someone in their future endeavors to name a character. Most of this is common sense, but it’s often easy to forget these little tidbits of wisdom when you’re busy trying to figure out if your character makes a better Ashley or a Paige.

Getting a  Spark

There are many great places to get ideas for names. I’ll list some here that you may have missed.

  • Phone Books
  • TV Credits
  • Family & Friends
  • Baby Name Lists
  • Mythology
  • Combine two names! Courtney + Evangeline = Courline
  • Evolve a name! Caroline->Carline->Carlene->Lene->Lena
  • Random Name Generators

Sometimes you may hear a name that strikes you. Write it down. Keep a list of names you like or that you may have heard and found unique, but may not be able to use at the present moment. When you need a new name for a character, check your list! You may already have one.

Name Length

The length of a character’s name is an important factor to consider when choosing one. Short names are often more memorable than long names, but long names can also have a significance. Generally, short names are often equated with strong, simple, and good characters. (Ariel, Juno, Harry, Jack ) Longer names are usually associated with nobility, intelligence, and sometimes, evil. (Voldemort, Hermione, Desdemona, Lancelot) Of course this isn’t always the case, but it’s something to think about when naming your characters. Especially when you’re naming a main character, it’s often helpful to make up a shorter name as it will be repeated often, and it needs to be easy to remember and pronounce.

Also, if your character has a long first name, consider balancing it out with a short last name, or vice versa. “Alexandra Gallager” is a mouthful, but “Alex Gallager” and “Alexandra Hart” are easier to swallow.

How Many Names Do You Need?

When creating a character, you should know the character’s full name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use it. Most of the time in novels, a character’s middle and even last name are not used at all, and if they are, they’re used only a handful of times. The exception to this of course is Historical novels in which propriety corners the characters into referring to each other by last name. For instance, in one of my novels I have a character named Abigail Olivia Conway, but no one ever calls her that. They call her Abby, Ms. Conway, or simply, Abigail.

Of course there will be instances in which a character needs a particularly long name due to their culture or an inherited title (we’ll get more into that later), and the time may come when you will have to repeat the whole thing: James Ferdinand Elijah Beaumont III of Durham (ouch!). If you have to have a lot of names, make sure they all fit together.

Also consider the fact that for some stories, it may be better to have only one name or no name at all. As an example, I have a novel where the main character is simply called “Khet”. She lives in Neolithic times when surnames didn’t exist and communities were so small that second names weren’t needed.

Some great stories, such as The Postman, Waterworld, and The Time Machine have main characters whose names are never revealed. They are simply referred to by description: “The Postman”, “The Mariner”, and “The Time Traveller”.

Sometimes characters are named only by nickname or by an alias. You should know what your character’s real name is, but that doesn’t mean your audience needs to.

Nicknames & Pet Names: Unique vs. Practical

If your character has a long name, or has several, you may consider giving them a nickname—particularly if your character’s name is difficult to pronounce. Even if your character does have a short name, you may consider letting some of your other characters give them a nickname or a pet name. For example, I’ll bring up Abigail again.  For most of the characters in my story, Abigail is referred to as “Ms. Conway”, but her friends call her “Abigail” or “Abby”. Her curmudgeonly grandfather calls her “girl”. Nicknames don’t have to be used by your entire cast of characters; they can be exclusive to certain individuals.

When choosing a nickname, it helps to consider if it’s a convenient nickname, or an opportunistic one. For instance, Abigail is referred to as “Abby” because it’s shorter. It’s a tourniquet version of her name, and what I’d call a “convenient nickname”. It exists because Abigail is a mouthful to say all the time. Hypothetically, Abigail could meet a man who refuses to call her anything but Violet. Violet, because when they first met she had a bright purple shiner where she’d been elbowed in the eye. Calling her Violet (referring to the color of the bruise) is an opportunistic nickname. Opportunistic nicknames don’t necessarily have to relate to a character’s real name.

What’s important to remember with nicknames is to adapt them to the character and the character’s situation within the story. For instance, if you were writing a young adult novel where the main character’s name was Maggie but everyone only called her “Raven” (for no particular reason), it would seem somewhat absurd. If you’re going to give a character a unique nickname, there should be a story behind how they got it, and it has to make sense. Why would I call Maggie “Raven”? Because in 6th grade she dressed up as a Raven in a school play and sneezed so hard from the feathers that she fell off the stage and into the front row. The kids at her school call her Raven to tease her, and she doesn’t particularly appreciate it. I would NOT call her Raven “because it sounds dark and awesome”.

Symbolism

Symbolism is okay if it’s subtle and believable, but if you’re trying too hard to be clever, you’re going to get a few eye rolls. Naming a dark, grim character “Raven Darkwood” is somewhat ridiculous. Naming the same character Darcy Mordant doesn’t seem so odd. Did you know Mordant is synonymous with: biting, caustic, cutting, pungent, poignant, sharp / grim, critical, or sharp humor? Darcy literally means “dark”. Don’t make your symbolism so obvious it becomes silly.

Other Naming Conventions…

In fantasy and sci-fi in particular, it’s common to have a character’s name be a little unconventional. Sometimes characters are named by their heritage or a title. For example, often in ancient times people were named after their father:  Erikson (Erik’s son), Thompson (Tom’s son) etc, their job: “Fletcher”, “Carter”, “Potter”, or were given a title: “The Bold”, “The Red” “Heavy-Hand”. Sometimes these names and titles were adapted through the family line. For example: Dracula literally means “Son of Dracul” Dracul meaning Dragon. Vlad Dracula III was named after his father, Vlad Dracul II who was historically a member of the Order of the Dragon. It’s okay to make something up if the naming convention works for your world.

A Few Things to Consider

  •  Names have a flavor. Some names (Damien, Delilah, Lilith, Lucifer) sound evil. Some names (Chastity, Harmony, Ella, Grace, Joy) sound good. Some names (Jace, Teagan, Skye, Aiden) sound modern. Some names (Edward, Abigail, Sebastian, Lottie) sound classic.  When you’re choosing a name make sure the flavor of that name fits your character, the time period, and their heritage. It makes no sense to give your character a classic Italian name if they’re from America in the year 2042.
  • Your character doesn’t get to pick their name. Their parents picked their name. When choosing a name for your character, consider where their parents grew up and the type of people they are. For example, if I had a character whose parents were Irish but had moved to America before she was born; her name might not sound American. It’d probably sound Irish. By the same token, orphans who are raised in nun-run orphanages often have names relating to religious figures. Hippies may name their kids really absurd names like Rainbow Joy or Moon Ray. Poor kids. Names are based on the parent’s expectations for their children. Don’t use a trendy name just because it sounds cool.
  • Avoid famous names unless you’re trying to make a point of it. Oprah probably wouldn’t be a great idea. Neither would James Bond. When in doubt, always Google your character’s full name to make sure it’s not accidentally associated with a well-known character from another book or a celebrity!
  • It’s okay for fantasy names to be quirky, but not absurd. Don’t use excessive apostrophe’s or add a ton of z’s, x’s and y’s. Don’t double or triple up on vowels. It makes you look silly.
  • Avoid androgynous names (Sam, Alex, Billie) unless you’re making a point. Using androgynous names makes it hard for your readers to figure out what gender your character is. The exception is if you’ve purposely given your character an androgynous name to spark character development. Example: A boy named Ashley who feels defined by his name and spends the book trying on different names for himself in an attempt to become someone other than who he is.
  • Try not to end your character names in “s”; it makes it difficult to write:  Hans’s? Hans’? What?
  • Avoid names that have more than one pronunciation (or cannot be pronounced) it’s not clever, it’s annoying. If your readers can’t pronounce the name, they’ll skim. You never want your readers to skim.
  • While unique names can sometimes be memorable, they also run the danger of seeming absurd to your readers. Plain names may not stand out as much, but they’re usually more relatable, unpronounceable, and rarely produce fits of eye-rolling.
  • Vary your letters. You don’t want an entire book where ever character’s name begins with “M”, you also don’t want two main characters with the same first initial, or a character whose name sounds like a rhyme. If it sounds silly to you, it probably is.

Don’t Be Afraid To Set a Name Aside

It’s okay to venture into writing a story where you don’t know any of the character’s names. It’s also okay to change a character’s name at any time during the writing process. If you aren’t sure what to name your character, write in a filler name that can be easily found and replaced at a later time. Get on with your story. Eventually you’ll settle on something, or you’ll choose not to have one at all. Either way, don’t let your inability to choose a name keep you from writing your story! Need good filler name? Grab a relative’s name. They won’t read the first draft anyway, right? You can also use simple designator like: “MFC” (Main Female Character) “JANE” or “JOHN” (as in Doe), or “THATANNOYINGGIRL” and “THEBROODINGBOY”. Have fun with it.

Well, it was short, but hopefully I gave you a few things to think about when considering names for your character. Thanks for taking the time to read my little guide to choosing names. I hope it helps!

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6 thoughts on “A Writer’s Guide: Naming Characters

  1. I’m glad to see this! I don’t know how many times people come to me asking how I choose my names. If I might make a suggestion? There are a lot of names out there that the average writer/reader doesn’t know about with real meanings behind them; by visiting etymology sites you can discover huge lists of names you didn’t even know exist AND find out where they came from. They’re excellent resources for coming up with creative – but real – names.

    My favorites?
    http://www.behindthename.com/
    and
    http://surnames.behindthename.com/

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    • Oh thanks for reminding me! I go through those websites all the time (infact I was there looking up the meaning of Darcy Mordant. LOL) I’ll have to remember to add that to the top list of places to look (and the symbolism portion) Thanks!

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