Looking for the perfect name for your character? Look no further! In this article, I’ll give you all the tips and resources you’ll need to masterfully name the characters you’ve worked so hard to create.
I’ve won several national awards for writing. Four were novel excerpts and one was a short story, but they all had something in common: they had characters. My character’s name is one of the first impressions left on the reader. I’ve utilized all of these tips and resources at some point or another, and they have made a world of difference.
are names really that important?
The name says something about the character. First, names often give us an insight into the character’s personality or gender.
Secondly, the name can determine whether or not we take the character seriously. For instance, could we really have admired Katniss Everdeen as much if her name had been Cabbage Bottom? Probably not. The character would have done all the same courageous acts, but we would have been left giggling at her name every time we saw it. In the same way, a character’s name sets us up for how we perceive the character.
While your character should be more than a name, he/she/it will be referred to by that name by all of your fans (and I wish you millions and millions of loyal fans). Let’s make sure that name is something you can be proud to hear in all the discussions from everyone who is sure to rave about your story.
Unique vs. Traditional
Before we get into the tips and tools to help you find a great name, let’s talk about what kind of name you should choose. Most names can be sorted into one of two groups: unique or traditional.
Traditional, according to my categorization, is any name that you’ve heard a million times. Names like Sarah, John, Elizabeth, and Luke. There is nothing wrong with these names, but they are far from surprising. These names are commonly used in literature, and readers are very familiar with them. The only problem is that readers may not remember these names as well as less common names. A character named Sarah can get lost in the slew of Sarahs that fills libraries. That being said, a phenomenal character with an ordinary name can become unforgettable. The main character of ‘Jane Eyre’ has an ordinary name (Jane), but she is incredibly well known and admired. Her name is even the title of the book!
Unique names don’t necessarily have to be made up. They can simply be names that aren’t heard very often. These can be names from cultures other than your target audience, nicknames, words not normally used for names, or anything else that is unheard of or uncommonly heard of. Unique names can also be names that are normal, but not often used. These kind of names can be wonderful because they are memorable, but don’t get hung up on them. Some readers find names like these to be presumptuous or tedious.
My personal preference is to have a mix of the two. Having characters with traditional names gives a sense of realism, and adding in a few unique names gives it a little flare.
Tips to choose the perfect name:
Search Off the Beaten Path
Don’t use the name everyone else is using. This often means avoiding names that appear on the most popular baby names list. Sarah and John have often been the most used names in America, so while it’s not completely taboo for writers to use these names, it isn’t advised. You can definitely use names like these if you really feel like they are right for your character and story, but just be aware that they don’t stand out in a crowd.
Likewise, don’t use a unique name that belongs to a character in a popular book. ‘The Hunger Games’ is widely read, so if you name your character Katniss, it will be weird. If last years best seller featured an African American girl named Anya, don’t create an African American character named Anya. It will look like you’re a copycat, and that’s not a reputation you want.
Try to find names that fit your character and story but aren’t over used.
Pick a Name That’s Easily Pronounceable
Please, for the love of goodness, make the name pronounceable.
Like any rule on this list, it can be broken if done with a certain measure of artistry. But don’t. I beg of you, if your character is any good, don’t.
I recently read a book that had an outstanding secondary character. Unfortunately for the book, all of the other characters fell flat. I only finished the book because this character was so enticing. He was unique, kind, brave, a tortured soul, and everything else that made a character worth reading about. The only problem was that his name was some completely unpronounceable French name. After struggling to say it in my head for half of the book, I finally Googled it and listened to the pronunciation. The pronunciation was nothing like how it was spelled, and it sounded out of place. It wasn’t warm and lovable, which the character was. Although he was one of my favorite characters I’ve read about in a while, I couldn’t tell you his name if I wanted to. Not being able to pronounce his name kept me from connecting with him as much as I could have. That’s unfortunate.
Don’t let that be your character.
Think About Nationality, Culture, and History
This is especially helpful when writing historical fiction or last names. You can’t use a name that wasn’t created until a century after your character was supposed to have lived, and your pure blood Japanese antagonist shouldn’t have a German last name.
Knowing the race and nationality of my characters is what makes deciding on last names so easy for me. For example, my current work in progress has a family of Irish decent as main characters. Looking for Irish surnames made narrowing down the list a lot simpler.
Try a Nickname
Sometimes your character is an average person living an average life, but you still want them to have a unique name. This is where nicknames come in handy. It may not be feasible for a regular American girl living in a normal family to be named Stargleamer, but her nickname could totally be Stardust. Nicknames are easy ways for regular Joes to have interesting calling cards.
People like characters with nicknames because they are often a sign of affection. Unless the nickname is mean or rude, it is likely that the nickname was bestowed upon the character by someone who loves him/her. Characters become more likable when we see that someone loves them.
If you choose to go the route of the nickname, I suggest that you milk it for all it’s worth. One way to do this is make the origin of the nickname clever and memorable. Think long and hard about how your character got his/her nickname. Is it a humorous nickname for a laughable character? A nickname given to them by someone who is dying or dead? Did they get a macho nickname for doing something heroic?
My favorite nicknamed character is Two-Bit from ‘The Outsiders’. He’s a funny guy who is always cracking jokes and teasing his friends. They call him Two-Bit because he always has to get his ‘two bits’ in. This nickname tells the reader about his best known characteristic and creates a sense of bonding between him and his friends.
Dig Deep: Pick a Name with Meaning
If you are struggling to find a good name for your character, try finding a name with a meaning that relates to his/her personality or destiny. Almost every name has a meaning, and it’s only one Google search away to discover the root and meaning of any name. If you have a character that is primarily gentle, look up names that mean ‘gentle’. If you have a bitter character that is hateful and vengeful, try Googling a name that means ‘bitter’ or ‘grief’. You may be surprised at what you find.
Where Can I Find Ideas for Names?
Sometimes we need a little bit of help when it comes to finding names. There are so many different names out there that it is impossible to know them all. When you use these tools to find names, you may discover new names or rediscover ones you have forgotten about.
Baby Name Sites:
Baby name sites are great for writers. Not only do most sites offer a great selection, but most will tell you the origin and meaning of each name. Here are a few popular sites to try:
Name generators are super easy to use. Some ask you to fill out information like nationality, gender, or age. All you have to do is click a button and the generator spits out a name. These can be fun to try out, and they may help you stumble across a name combo you never thought of before.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you absolutely love the name of your character. Don’t settle for a name that isn’t perfect. Keep looking until you find a name that is as amazing as the characters you create.
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