Coming up with a great name for your characters is one of the hardest tasks you’ll ever complete as a fiction writer. The weight of that responsibility can often paralyze writers.
On one hand, you don’t want to saddle your characters with ordinary, pedestrian names. The right name can help you explore a character’s personality. The right name can help the reader easily identify each character.
On the other hand, going too “creative” with your name choices can distract or even confuse your reader. The wrong name can take the reader out of the story and cause him or her to question why you, the author, made such an inane choice. The wrong name can force the reader to backtrack in an attempt to remember who’s who.
The perfect name is elusive.
Sometimes, you’ll know the name of the character before you know much anything else. Other times, you’ll know everything about the character except for his or her name. This guide is for the other times.
So, let’s discuss how to hunt down the perfect names for your characters below.
There are a lot of Mary’s in the world, which is precisely why your novel may need one. In creating the world for your novel, your name choices need to be authentic to the types of characters who live within them.
Consider the following:
The Character’s Age
When was the character born? Velma is perfectly acceptable for a character born in 1920, but one born in 2003? Not as much unless the character’s parents had a particular fascination with Scooby Doo.
If you need help researching common names during a specific year, check out the Social Security Administration’s popular names list. Use this list to find the top 10 most commonly used names for both boys and girls.
The character’s names should fit the norms of when they were born. Of course, you may have one character who has an unusual name that stands out from everyone else’s, but that should never be the rule.
This leads me to my next point:
The Character’s Parents
The characters don’t name themselves—this is the job of your character’s parents. With few exceptions, your character’s parents will be conventional folk who follow the trends of the day. They may also bestow a family name on their child.
However, there’s always a logic behind their name choice that is explained to or easily understood by the reader.
Names vary based on location. Mary in Canada is Maria in Peru, Maryam in Iran, and Marie in France. Your names should honor the location and fit in.
Mind the Genre
Quick! Your novel is set in Victorian era England. What names do you think of first? George, John, Margaret, Rose, Charles, Samuel, and Edith are the names that popped into my mind.
Now, let’s make the challenge just a bit harder. Your novel is set in colonized Mars circa 2089. What names do you give? Definitely more difficult to answer, but I’m assuming no Edith’s made the list. Maybe Kel, Ambrose, Stone, Finn, or Caris. Because it’s set in a future that no one knows, you have more wiggle room to predict trends.
No matter what, genre will directly impact name choice. Whether you’re writing a historical romance, an adventure-driven sci-fi, or a moody dystopian commentary, your characters’ names must make sense within the context of the time and theme.
A character who is called John one minute, Jonathan the next, and Mr. Pierce every now and then is bound to confuse the readers. Sure, many of us answer to more than one name, but in the short space of a novel, there’s simply no way of using multiple names for one character without confusing the heck out of your readers.
The simple solution is to avoid it at all costs. With few exceptions (perhaps John is called Mr. Pierce occasionally, by his employees), he should always be referred to by one name.
Whether you’ve got three characters or 30, give each one a uniquely different sounding name. That means no Bob and Ben. No Laurie and Lauren. No Adam and Aden.
Readers don’t actually read the entire word. They’ll stop at L, for example, understanding it to be Laurie. But, if you introduce a new character, Lauren, now the reader must read the entire word and then take time to remember the differences between the two characters. It’s exhausting, and it takes away from the pleasure of reading your book.
This advice is applicable for everyone in your story, even for twins.
Naming Tips to Keep in Mind
Don’t give two characters in the same story:
Names that start with the same letter. Example: Tim and Tom
Names that sound alike. Example: Chelsea and Kelsey
A similar shaped name. Example: Daren and Karen
Avoid Name Associations
Elvis is questionable. Beyonce is pushing it. Adolf is not okay.
Some names should be retired from use, even in fiction.
Avoid choosing names that have become famous in pop culture or infamous in annals of history. Unless you have a pretty good and intentional reason for using these names, don’t do it.
Otherwise, you could end up turning your character into a caricature of a historical figure.
Choose Easy to Pronounce Names
Keep names as simple as possible. No D’ekjfa or Um’ro’a or Qwghapfe please. Your name should be easy to pronounce because readers often read names aloud (if only in their minds).
Reinforce the Character’s Qualities
The character’s name often shapes who he or she becomes. With a hippie name like River, your character may be an apologist for her parents. With a strong name like Stone, she may be a loner that’s rough around the edges.
Use names to give special insight into the character.
When choosing names, consider their root meanings. Use it as an opportunity to get symbolic, although you don’t need to spell it out for the reader. Years down the road, when your novel becomes mandatory reading in school, students will discover and delight in these hidden meanings.
Re-Evaluate the Character’s Name
Last, but not least, remember that you can change your character’s name whenever you’d like during the editing process. If you don’t feel like the current name fits with the character, get rid of it and re-think it. Use these tips to help you find a better choice.
Other Ways to Find Names
A Name Generator
Name generators can help get your creative juices flowing. A couple of clicks, and you may come away with a completely new and interesting name.
Pick Up a Baby Name Book
Head to a baby name website and search for names by gender, popularity, and alphabet. Remember, don’t choose names that start with the same letter.
The Phone Book
Hey! Finally something you can do with it. If you still have access to a phone book (check your grandmother’s house), let your fingers do the walking until you find a few names that sound just right for your characters.