12 tips on how to name your characters

how to name your characters

Naming your characters can be difficult since there are so many things to be taken into consideration when choosing character names.

Here are 12 tips to help you find the perfect names for your characters:

1. Keep the time period of your story and your character’s age in mind.

Names often go in and out of fashion. For example, Bertha was one of the top 10 most popular names for girls in 1880, so if you are writing a historical novel, it might be a good name for your heroine, but if you name a character Bertha in a contemporary novel, readers will assume she’s an older woman.

Make sure the names you pick for your characters are historically accurate. Do some research into when the names you have in mind came into general use. Genealogical websites and literature written in that era can be helpful resources. If your story is set in the US, the Social Security Administration’s website is a great resource too. It shows the most popular names for boys and girls for each year as far back as 1880.

Also, keep in mind that some names used to be considered boys’ names but are now more typically used for girls or the other way around. For example, Ashley was the name of the young man Scarlett O’Hara was pining after in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, but it’s now more strongly identified with a girl’s name.

2. Make sure your characters’ names fit their ethnic background.

When picking names for your characters, also keep their cultural and ethnic backgrounds in mind. For example, one of the main characters in my novel Heart Trouble is Persian-American, so I named her Laleh Samadi. The name of the protagonist in Ask, Tell by EJ Noyes—Sabine Fleischer—indicates her German roots.

3. Pick a name that fits the character’s personality.

People often associate certain personality traits with a name. For example, Mara evokes different associations than Brooke, and Zeke implies a different personality than Alexander. Names with hard consonants such as t or k will more often be associated with strong personalities, while vowels such as a and softer consonants such as d or l might convey a more agreeable, warmer personality.

4. If you want, pay attention to a name’s meaning.

Most names have a meaning. You don’t have to reveal it in your story, but you could pick a name with a meaning that fits your character and their role in the story. For example, Suzanne Collins named the main character of The Hunger Games, Katniss, after a plant that translates to “archer.” (For those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, Katniss is great with a bow and arrow.)

5. Avoid giving several characters similar names.

If your characters have names that look or sound too similar, your readers might become confused and not be able to tell the characters apart. Don’t give several characters names that

  • start with the same letters, e.g., Janet, Janine, and Jenny,
  • end with the same letter or sound, e.g., Brandie, Billy, Mary,
  • rhyme, e.g., Jim and Tim,
  • have the same number of syllables, e.g., Ben, Tom, Jill, and Ann.

6. If you give your character an unusual name, make sure you have a good reason.

Of course, you want your character to stand out and be memorable, but giving them an unusual name is not the best way to achieve that. If your character does have a name that stands out, make sure you give an explanation. For example, the main character in my novel Perfect Rhythm is named Leontyne. We find out that her father named her after Leontyne Price, his favorite opera singer. Her father is a violinist, and he wanted his daughter to follow in his footsteps, and that’s part of the conflict between them in the book.

7. Keep in mind who picked your character’s name.

In most societies, the parents pick a baby’s name, but that’s not always the case. So think about who named your character–a parent, a relative, the character themselves, or is there another naming tradition in the world of your story? In any case, the name of your characters should reveal something  about the person who picked the name too. For example, in my romance novel The Roommate Arrangement, one of the main characters is named Raelynn Joy Coleman. Her parents are unconventional free spirits—basically hippies at heart—who named her Raelynn (resembling “ray of light”) because she was born on a sunny day.

8. A character’s nickname can tell you a lot about the person too.

Sometimes, characters will choose to shorten their names or go by a nickname. Is your character a Mike, or does he insist on Michael? Does she go by Jennifer or Jenny or Jen? For example, the main character in The Roommate Arrangement hates her full name and prefers to go by Rae. She rejected not just her name, but also her parents’ hippie lifestyle.

9. You might want to avoid names ending in s.

At least for your protagonist, whose name you’ll be using a lot in the book, it might be best not to use a name that ends in s, e.g., James. Names ending in s lead to awkward possessive forms such as James’s sister.

10. Make sure the first name and last name flow well together.

Usually, a short first name goes well with a longer last name and the other way around, and a common first name can be more effective with an unusual last name and the other way around. If your character often goes by a shortened version of their name, make sure the shorter name also goes well with the last name. For example, Jennifer Perry might flow well, but Jenny Perry might not.

11. Avoid using the name of a famous real or fictional person.

Once you decided on a first and last name, make sure it’s not the name of a celebrity or a character from a popular book. I usually look up the name on Wikipedia.

12. Don’t name all of your characters.

Not all of your characters need a name. Walk-ons such as the taxi driver or the barista might not need a name. Naming a character within the story tells readers to pay attention because this character is going to be important. If the character is only going to be in one scene and barely interacts with the protagonist, you might just want to call them “the taxi driver” or “the barista”–unless you have a good reason to give them a name, e.g., to show that your main character is the kind of person who would know their barista’s name. 

 

How do you come up with character names?

Can you think of other character naming tips I forgot to mention?

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19 thoughts on “12 tips on how to name your characters”

  1. I love https://www.names.org/ because it shows a graph of the name use over time, as well as meanings and breakdown of ethnicity, location usage, all sorts of information to help dial in a character’s name. I also google popular last names in (state) often since I struggle with that more than first names.

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  2. Thanks for sharing. I’ve named the main character in my sci-fi novels Alessia because it essentially means “saviour of mankind” and she plays a significant role in the dystopian future. Names are always quite fun.

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  3. There’s something else I would recommend keeping in mind when naming characters: Especially when using popular names, there’s a good chance someone else has the same name. If you have a large cast of characters, it’s absolutely not a problem if two of them share the same name – on the opposite, it’s unlikely for that not to happen, so it can even make the setting more realistic. A good example for this is Voldemort from Harry Potter, who hated his very ordinary given name (Tom) so much that he invented a new one for himself. Not surprisingly, there actually is another character named Tom who is the barman at the Leaky Cauldron and ordinary in every way.

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  4. Thank you for this article! I’m pretty new and not entirely sure what I’m doing with the whole writing thing, so this was very helpful. My main character’s name is Rosina and she is a the daughter of a prince. Your article is going to be quite influential to my other characters’ names.

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    • I’d say that Nameberry is the BEST website if you are looking for character names. There are a variety of different types and many manage to be unusual yet still pleasant to voice. Nameberry is also great because it lists where this name has been used before in pop culture so you know if the name has been famously used and perhaps you should not use it.

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  5. I believe Nameberry is the BEST website if you are looking for character names. There are a variety of different types and many manage to be unusual yet still pleasant to voice. Nameberry is also great because it lists where this name has been used before in pop culture so you know if the name has been famously used and perhaps you should not use it.

    Reply
  6. Thank you for the tips! I named my main character who is female Mark, because her parents and her sister had super powers, but Mark did not have powers, she was always the weird one. I don’t know how I came up with this name.

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    • Unusual names are just fine if they make sense within the story and character background. Once you publish the book, you’ll have to work harder in the blurb to make it clear Mark is not a man, though.

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  7. Please don’t tell people to make it “easy to pronounce.” If we learn to pronounce Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, readers should be able to have exposure to other cultures as well. Your suggestion reeks of colonialism and white supremacy (and yes, white supremacy isn’t just the KKK but the fact that other ethnicities must accommodate for the English-speaking world). This reinforces using the same ethnic name over and over again, and reinforces sterotypes. Thank you for your consideration.

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  8. Thank you! It’s surprising how these simple tips can go such a long way. My naming process has definitely suffered for not having stumbled across this article sooner.

    One thing to note, though: The thing about parents naming their children, like Poorya mentioned, isn’t always true.
    Sometimes a different family member gets to instead, sometimes children are just named after other members of their family, or, in a sci-fi setting, it could be a totally random selection made by the state-run orphanage this character grew up in, or a 5 digit number on their shirt.
    It all depends on the social arrangement of their society, and the specific dynamics of the family (or lack thereof) this character is born into.

    And, as nobody as seems to have remembered, trans people essentially name themselves. Sometimes parents help out, but they usually don’t. And even when they do, it’s their child who has the final say. They’re in control of their own name.
    And this can complicate the character naming process greatly.

    For example, I was racking my brain about how to name one of my characters for a long time, a trans woman who has been coerced into prostitution via debt and the love interest of the main character.
    At first, her name was Roxanne, because I thought it was a very sensual and, therefore, fitting name.

    Later on, though, as I became more mature, I began to realize that I’d been sexualizing her in a very uncomfortable and awful way, so along with making substantial changes to the plot and dialogue, I also named her Francine instead. But then that started to feel wrong too, maybe too child-like?
    At first, I came up with a list of names based on what her parents may have been thinking when they named her as a baby. But then I realized, whatever they named her wasn’t her name.
    It would’ve been a deadname.

    Afterwards, I started to think of names she’d pick herself, and settled on Mariposa, Mari for short, because I’m trying to reinforce a butterfly motif with her.
    But now, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe that’s too obvious? I also have Florence, Vivienne, and Chanel listed, so I could pick those instead. What do you think?

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    • You are right, of course! I revised the blog post to reflect that. I think it’s wonderful that you put so much thought into picking the right name for your character. I imagine that a lot of trans people put a lot of thought into it too! I would say: Just try to put yourself in her shoes. What name would you pick for yourself if you had to choose one? Maybe one of the names you like would also fit your character? Personally, I feel that a name hinting at the character being trans would reduce the character to that one quality instead of seeing her as a complex individual whose trans identity has, of course, shaped her but doesn’t determine her entirely, if that makes sense. I would pick her name the way I would pick the names for any other character–mostly based on what fits her personality and her backstory.

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