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How To Find the Perfect Names For Your Characters!

If you’re writing a story, the names you give your characters can help your readers get an idea of what they’re like.

Here are some things to keep in mind!

Make the name pronounceable. It’s annoying if the reader has to sort of mumble over the name in her head every time she comes across it. If you’re writing something historical,  try to find accessible names that are still historically accurate. Áed and Máel-ruanaid may have been popular guys’ names in early medieval Ireland, but readers will probably feel more comfortable with Conall or Dáire (and you may not feel like you want that accent mark.)

Make it believable. If your characters have to discuss the name at length (“Why did your parents name you Devyl?”) consider the possibility that it’s too far-fetched. You might like to balance a more unusual name with a boring last name (Indiana Jones), or vice versa (Mary Poppins). If both the first and the last name are fanciful and evocative, the result can be eyeroll-inducing (Bella Swan, Anastasia Steele.)

Of course, you have more freedom with non-human beings. If you have, say, one supernatural or otherworldly character and one “everyperson” character, the names can reflect that dynamic.

Here are some good resources for naming:

Social Security Baby Names site

For the years 1880 to the present, you can pull up lists of the 1000 most popular names for girls and boys in the U.S., respectively. Figure out what year your character was born, and pull up the list!

http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/

Lowchens

This guide to naming a pet happens to be one of the best character naming sites out there for paranormal, historical, and fantasy stuff. Whether you’re looking for angel names, Gaelic and Celtic names, nature names, Maori names, or whatever, you can find a great list to choose from here.

http://www.lowchensaustralia.com/names.html

Last names, U.S. Census Bureau

This is just a long ugly list of last names in the U.S. today, arranged by popularity.

http://www.census.gov/genealogy/names/dist.all.last

Make the name likeable if the character is supposed to be likeable (and unlikeable if she’s not).

babynames.com has a rating system for names, so you can double-check and make sure you haven’t picked a character name that will make everyone hate him or her immediately. Just search the name and look at the star rating.

http://www.babynames.com/

Avoid making non-European names too stereotypical.

If you have a character who is American-born Chinese, for instance, maybe don’t name her Jade Choy just because you have a Chinese-style jade necklace and you use La Choy soy sauce. Do your research.

Make your character names different enough from each other.

If you use the same start letter for a few different characters, your readers may get them mixed up. Sometimes the same start letter can be a good way of identifying siblings, though.

Don’t give all your characters’ names the same rhythm. If everyone has a two-syllable first name and a two-syllable last name, it’s going to start to sound weird.

Avoid choosing names that contain a lot of the same sounds, i.e. “This is the story of three friends: Dan, Manny, and Randy.”

Just a few more notes:

If you’re writing fantasy, think about giving all of the people of the same non-human race a similar logic to their names. For instance, if they’re fairies, you could all give them names inspired by nature, or if they’re aliens, you could start with ancient Sumerian names and alter them all a little, or something like that.

You can change what your characters call one another to indicate an increasing degree of intimacy, as when Dean in Supernatural first calls Castiel “Cas.” It’ll give everyone a little thrill!

Finally, before you use the name, Google it to make sure you haven’t accidentally come up with something that belongs to a famous real person or well-known fictional character.

Now that you’ve got the perfect name, you can go on to create an amazing, immortal character. Hooray!

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

20 replies on “How To Find the Perfect Names For Your Characters!”

Great suggestions, all! I’m of the symbolically representative names (usually) or thematic names — for instance, the mother/daughter pairing in one of my recent works was Nico and Exene, named after two of my favorite singers.  So almost all of the names had some sort of musical connection.

Avoid making non-European names too stereotypical.

If you have a character who is American-born Chinese, for instance, maybe don’t name her Jade Choy just because you have a Chinese-style jade necklace and you use La Choy soy sauce. Do your research.

I’d like to expand on this just a bit — different cultures have different naming standards, so if you are going to use non-Western style names, beyond just keeping the stereotypes out of it, make sure you’re not, say, ordering the names incorrectly.

I like Behind the Name for starting my name research, because I am a dork who likes to have the names mean things. Of course I am also a big fan of say the name to make sure you can say it. And the no similar names stuff. I have recently reread a book I love that is about Norsmen, who have these supah Norse names that really mean things and are accurate but, God help me I hate having to sort between Viradechtis, Vigdis, and Vethulf, Gunnarr and Grimolfr. (Hilariously the magical race of elves that show up halfway through the book have names that are stupidly easy to say and are very distinct.)

YES! I love this article! I do a lot of writing (both fanfic and original) and figuring out character names is tricky. Like you mentioned, http://www.babynames.com/ is one of my go-to places. One of my favorite original character names is ‘Lailah’ which I found through their Hebrew name database. Plus, I enjoy it when my characters posses names meaning (like JK Rowling did a great job with that), so having the meanings of names is bloody wonderful.

Also, your SPN mention made me realize just how happy I am to be at Pmag now that I’m a Jez refugee – my heart always skips a beat when Dean says ‘Cas’! :) And you’re right – it is handy to keep that tip in mind when creating character names; i.e., how to create a nickname from it.

Thanks!

I love naming characters, but can also turn into a grump when it doesn’t work out the way I wanted. I need a name to go on creating the story, I can’t work with [name] or [will be filled later], it’s too important for the character for me.

I need to remind myself not to use the same names all the time, though. Nina and Richard are stuck inside my head like go-to names for like-able characters and they bore the hell out of me right now.  So I steal from other authors and adjust, mix up a name (yes, one of my characters is a Holmes, but I had great fun pulling something feminine from the letters that make Sherlock) and just flit through all the people I know inside my mind.

Leaving out the accent (fada in Irish) on Dáire (meaning virile, among other things, pronounced like [dhoy-ra]) actually makes it a different name, Daire [da-ra], which means ‘oak’ (or also ‘second’, when it’s spelled Dara). It’s worth doing some research on names and their orthography if they’re derived from languages you don’t know.

When it comes to character naming, meaning, and the pitfalls thereof, I can only turn to the best resource on the matter, Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

By a curious  coincidence,  None  at  all  is  exactly  how  much
suspicion  the  ape-descendant  Arthur  Dent  had that one of his
closest friends was not descended from an ape, but  was  in  fact
from  a  small  planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from
Guildford as he usually claimed.

Arthur Dent had never, ever suspected this.

This friend of his had first arrived on the planet  some  fifteen
Earth  years  previously, and he had worked hard to blend himself
into Earth society – with, it must be  said,  some  success.  For
instance he had spent those fifteen years pretending to be an out
of work actor, which was plausible enough.

He had made one careless blunder though, because he had skimped a
bit  on his preparatory research. The information he had gathered
had led him to choose the name “Ford  Prefect”  as  being  nicely
inconspicuous.

Preparatory research is your friend.

– Nefarious Newt

Ohh, character-naming is an adventure. My huge project of the decade involves, basically, a multiple-century ensemble “cast” (several different stories) and I have “placeholder” names for a LOT of people. I’ll get to them.

One of the early stories involves a character whose name I had to change…I’d originally called her Bella (which actually suited her) until I heard of stupid Twilight. And I had a lot of people “joke” about how I was “influenced by Twilight”. No, not at all. I grew up on Buffy. Twilight has no appeal for me. So Bella’s name changed (I have decided that “Bella” is a nickname, I don’t care).

As for not-technically-human characters, I’m sticking with “normal” names (because they’re living in a human world and at least KIND OF try to blend in. Sometimes. Shut up, Wilhelm. Stupid werewolf.) that are more timeless, since they are basically living undercover.

Writing fiction is an adventure.

Supernatural mention, weee! Yikes, my obsession has come out full force on here recently.

I can’t remember where I read this, probably some random article about naming characters, but avoid naming your hero/main male protag ‘Jack’. Apparently in recent years everyone and their mother has chosen ‘Jack’ as their scruffy, rakish, sarcastic leading man.

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