How to Name Your Characters
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
With the act of creation comes the responsibility of naming. Parents discover this when they must pick a name for their newborn, entrepreneurs when they must figure out what to call their new business or product, and writers when they must name their first character.
Writers are probably the most familiar of anybody with the process. With every story comes the pressure of naming characters--and it's a lot of pressure. It has to be right. Some writers pick the first name that comes to mind and run with it, while others laboriously research the etymology of a name to make sure it fits every personality trait of the character-in-question. While there's no right or wrong way to go about the ritual of naming, here are some of my thoughts on how to generate ideas:
1) Purchase a baby name book (but be prepared for the assumptions!):
I own multiple baby name books, and I reference them constantly when I'm in the character creation process. But beware, people will think you're expecting—which, admittedly, can be hilarious. A few years ago my then-boyfriend walked into a room where I had two baby name books open, so of course he asked sombrely, "do you have something to tell me?"
Apparently "I'm having twins so I needed two books" is not a funny answer to some people (hence the past-tense on that relationship!).
Alternatively, there are endless websites where you can find lists of baby names. If you want a name with a specific meaning, or one that begins with a certain letter, it can be easier to look online—especially because you can search for names outside of your own culture or language.
Sometimes though, it's more fun to derive names without sorting through long lists, which brings me to my next point:
2) Shamelessly steal names from real life:
I used to be a cashier at a retail store, and anytime customers needed to return an item, I was required to ask for their first and last name. Sometimes people had exceptionally ordinary first names, but interesting last names, or common last names, but vivid first names. Whenever a name sparked interest for me, I would write it down. I would never use their full first and last name for my own characters, but there is nothing wrong with writing down a unique or interesting first or last name and tucking it away for later.
You can also look to the names of friends, family, teachers, classmates, or even historical figures for inspiration. Consider, too, the names of places, like city names or street names.
3) Pick names that aren't names (fun with nouns!):
Another strategy for picking names is to pick a noun that is not generally a name. For example, I've never heard of a character named sickle, or dime, or celery, or rake. Those names sound incredibly random, but creating a character with a never-been-used-before name is very freeing. There are no connotations, nobody saying "I don't like that your protagonist is named Rake because all the Rake's I've known were jerks" —unless of course the reader has a bad history with gardening.
Another benefit to names that aren't names is that they are memorable--which is something that celebrities know well--just think of names like Blanket or Apple.
4) Consider the setting:
If you are writing a historical fiction, for example a story about vikings and valkyries, names like Lisa or Johnny aren't going to cut it. It's important to pick names that match your setting so that your names aren't out of place for the time-period or the fantasy world. In the aforementioned viking story, a Norse name would be more fitting. For example, the name Baldur or Asta already fit better than a modern English name would.
There is nothing wrong with a character having an unusual name for the setting, but it should be intentional and add something to the story. If your character names stand out for the wrong reasons, the reader will notice.
People in real life often derive names from their physical environment, hence the popularity of names like Lily or Heath or Dawn. This is something that can be used in fiction, too. For example, if you have a character who lives in a desert world or climate, it is fitting to pick names based around that environment. A quick google search of desert flowers lead me to a plant called Ocotillo—which could make a very interesting female character name with plenty of opportunity for nick names like Oco or Tillo.
Pick your environment and research the types of plants and animals native to that environment. I promise that this method yields an abundance of name options.
5) Pay attention to sound:
I find that alliterative names often immediately assert their personality and charm! For example, a name like Maggie McRagan immediately has impact. But if you want something more subtle, I recommend using other types of alliteration, like assonance (repeated vowel sounds) and consonance (repeated consonant sounds). Rather than picking a name with repeating first letters like the J and J in John Johnson, consider a name like Lisa Macintosh, which uses alliteration of the letters i, s, and a. When said aloud, the subtle alliteration makes name flow without being distracting.
How to know if it the name is right:
Naming my characters is one of my favorite parts of writing. It's a wonderful feeling to finally uncover your character's name. You will always know when you've found it because it will feel so very right, and you won't believe you could have ever considered any other name. In fact, calling your character by any other name will make you feel vaguely ill.
Don't overthink it, just trust your gut on this one. You'll know.