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How To Pick The Right Names For Your Characters

Picking the right names for your characters is a small but important part of developing your short story or novel. This process comes easily to some writers. It’s one of the first things they decide, and everything about those characters develops naturally from there. For other writers, however, picking a name feels as monumental as naming a newborn baby.

And that’s no exaggeration!

Before you start scrambling for the baby name books, here are a few things to consider when coming up with names for your characters.

A Checklist To Consider Before Choosing Character Names:

Where are they from? When are they from? The cultural and historical context of your character’s life is often a good place to start when searching for a name. As pretty as the name Gwendolyn is from a modern perspective, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find anyone with that name in, say, Imperial China.

By that same token, it’s not entirely unlikely that a first-generation Polish-American boy in the 20th century might be named Henry because his parents wanted him to fit into their new homeland.

Keep in mind that different countries and time periods have different naming traditions. In Japan, for example, a person’s family name goes before their given name. And up until modern times, people from Scandinavia used patronyms instead of surnames—that means that Lars Sørensen would have been the son of Søren Madsen, who was the son of Mads Andersen, and so on.

Age. How old is your character? Name trends change from year to year. If your story is set in modern times, a little research can yield a lot of information about what names were popular around the time your character would have been born.

For example: A name like Ethel was popular in the early 1900s, which might explain why today, we associate it with little old ladies. If in your story Ethel is a teenage girl, it will probably strike your readers as odd unless there’s a good reason for it.

And hey—maybe there is. That’s what a solid background story is all about!

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What is their personality like? By folding personality into names, you can subtly influence how your readers perceive your characters.

Think of Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Willy is a pretty common name, fitting for this Everyman-type protagonist. Note that no one calls him William, which would conjure up a sense of respect (which, in fact, no one has for him). Furthermore, his surname quite blatantly states his position on the social ladder—he’s a Low Man, struggling and ultimately failing to elevate himself.

If you don’t want to be so obvious, consider the sound of your character’s name. A name with hard consonants like “k” and “t” implies masculinity (i.e., Brock), whereas softer vowel sounds can evoke the feminine (i.e., Evelyn). But you may want to flip these conventions if it makes sense for your character.

You can also play on words. It’s an obvious example, but Severus Snape from Harry Potter sounds an awful lot like “severe snake,” which says multitudes about his personality.

Okay, fine, grab the baby name book. Sometimes the meaning of a name can be the unspoken power behind it. Names like Grace and Joy are pretty obvious in their meanings, while others are composed of words from ancient or foreign languages.

Let’s go back to Henry. The name of many English kings, Henry comes from the Germanic name Heimirich, which means “home ruler” (heim meaning “home” and ric meaning “ruler”). So, while ordinary on the surface, its meaning and historical significance make it a great name for a character taking on a position of great power.

Keep it simple, silly. While all of the aforementioned points can help you settle on the appropriate names for your characters, you don’t want to go overboard. The names that you choose should enrich your audience’s reading experience—not pull them out of it. So while Piloqutinnguaq (native Greenlandic for “little leaf”) could work in context, it may jar your readers right out of the story, and that’s the last thing you want.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: What is the name of the last fictional character you wrote or read about?

22 Responses to How To Pick The Right Names For Your Characters

  1. Thank you, very good article. I started my writing and have difficult times to find the character name for my kids stories. I picked name for a little boy Jackson but now I would like to change it and I’m wandering what it should be. This article enlighted for me some additional aspects that would be very helpful.

  2. I recently began writing a story where the main character gives himself a fake name to protect his identity, which is Jason Porpington. I borrowed Porpington from Harry Potter because the story is riddled with references to it, just for cute laughs. It took a while to invent the name because I invented the character and story first. I found that once the story line is understood and you develop intimate knowledge if your character, it makes it much easier to invent a name to fit them. Know them as though you know a real person, and it makes it all the more supportive for your story that you can write the character so truly as well as have a name that suits them.

  3. I’m writing a story whose main character is named Seth. Seth is a Hebrew name meaning “appointed by God”, and my Seth was basically tasked with protecting the realm he lives in by that realm’s goddess. I felt it was also a good relatable name, so I’m going to stick with it.

  4. i am a writer myself, and sometimes people say: “oh, but why don’t you use your friends names?” Because my friends would kill me. I am a fantasy/mecca writer, and I don’t think names like Sara and Georgia would fair very well. In my latest novel, “A Summoner’s Secret” , my main character is called Eris, (Greek, look it up!) because it has a different story behind it. In a previous attempt at one called “Dark Angels”, my brain got stuck, so I just called her Nam. Actually, that worked with the story. I don’t really care that sometimes, ‘spell checker don’t like my names’. Ah, it doesn’t even like MY name.

  5. Good article. Thank you for sharing! In many instances, I choose character names based on occupation. For example, in my latest mini romance (For Richer For Poorer), “Hamilton Steele” is the handsome real estate investor turned “handyman” … in another of my mini romance series (Loving a Texan from New Orleans, Parts 1 and 2), “Hunter Wolf” — a secret “military operative,” has been aptly named. Thank you for the tips above. Cassandra

  6. My favorite source for name inspiration is behindthename.com. You can look names up by language/country of origin, definition, meaning, etc. One of my favorite success stories was when I had a story that needed two cops: one named Melville (meaning: bad town) and the other named Devinson (meaning: son of the divine one).

  7. I love to involve names in the story. My character’s names are the important part of the plot. So picking the right name before writing the story is important for me.
    Thanks a lot for the article. I never thought of it before. It gives me new ideas.

  8. Thanks for this. I, too, associate naming my characters like naming my children. It’s important. Would Harry Potty be so popular if he had been called Bob Potter? What if Jane Eyre had been called Margaret or Dorcas?

    Anyway, great advice.

  9. I find that scouring obituaries can help when I’m searching for names from a certain decade or period. Sounds morbid, but it works!

  10. I research names that mean one of the main characteristics of my character. For instance, the character in my latest novel (What the River Knows) is a detective who is a bit lost in his own life. So I chose for his name Scott, (which means wanderer) Aylward (which means noble protector).The name describes who and how he is. Of course, there are times when I need a name for a minor character and just pull it out of thin air. Or when a friend requests a name, which is why there is a Boris in my second novel, The Judas Seat.

  11. My main character is Weslo Cadence. I have been running on a treadmill with that name for years so it wasn’t a stretch and fits my character perfectly. (Since the model of the treadmill was 1005, I had his birthdate be Qctober 5, just for my very astute readers who have also run on the WC 1005.)

  12. The leading lady in my new scifi screenplay is named Bree, seemingly a newer name, one that Word’s spell check program doesn’t recognize. It likes Brie, the cheese. I’m torn between spellings and leaning towards telling the computer where to get off.

  13. Thanks for the article. I am writing a story about growing up in the south during the depression. I am trying to remember the names of people I knew during that time. It is difficult. Your article will be helpful.

  14. This article gives some good ideas. Since I like to write historical fiction of the Ozarks, I go back to old tax files and local history articles and use first names that were popular at the time. I also check out the local last names, mostly Scots-Irish and French, and if they are very common, I pick from those or use names that are very similar. I do have a question, though. Why is it that there are no two people in a fiction novel with the same first names? It really isn’t realistic to think that in a town or village, only one person is named William or Mary. Sometimes I do name more than one character in a story the same. For instance, Elizabeth Baxter and her cousin Elizabeth McDonald. They can be individualized with nicknames, “Eliza” and “Lizzie, but the reader knows that there are two people in that town with the same name. It adds to the realism.

  15. Most of the names I come up with are real characters that I knew from the old days. I just put the first name with a different last name to protect the innocent, me.
    I always make sure that the name has a “euphious appelation” especially for names of women.

  16. MAry- What a Great Idea! I love it. I feel a bit embarrassed by the “commonness” of the names I have been using, even though they are appropriate.
    Changing the names last minute works for me.

  17. Thanks for the interesting article. I’m writing a sci fi novel, and have had to generate a lot of names for my aliens. Boy, did I have a hard time. I finally booted myself out of the hole by finding a name generator for a foreign language, generating some names, and altering them somewhat.

  18. I’m so glad I read this article. I’ve been in denial for a long time! I always go overboard when naming characters. It’s like I need their names to be the utmost of manliness or femininity, like Evangelina, and Donovan. Lol, I really need to tone it down. I just feel more excited about the character when they have a really unique name. I guess I could start out with a fun name to keep my interest going, and then change it at the end to something more appropriate. Cuz this article is absolutely right, it should be more about the times, and the character him/herself, not the novelty of how “cool” the name is to the author.

  19. I just finished reading SOPHIE’S CHOICE so Nathan Landau, Sophie Zawistowski, and Stingo come to mind!

  20. The book I’m reading now, THE POSTMISTRESS, has a main character named Frankie (a woman). Her real name is Frances and it says a lot about her that she doesn’t go by her real name.

    I guess sometimes the names that characters don’t go by can be as important as names they DO!

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