For Writers: Naming Our Characters

Frodo Baggins. Hermione Granger. Elizabeth Bennet. Daenerys Targaryen. A good character name is both unique and memorable at the same time.

Sometimes, as a writer, you meet a character and he or she tells you his or her name instantly. That’s how it was with the shero in my current WIP–Katrina St. George. I knew her name immediately. But some characters don’t reveal their names right away. It takes a little digging. One of my characters was Elspeth (a placeholder name); then she was Celeste. Finally, she was Sabine. I knew as soon as I heard that last one that I’d found her true name.

How do you choose a character’s name? For me, part of it is writer’s instinct. A name either feels way off, not quite right, or like a perfect fit. Sometimes a character introduces herself immediately. Other times, he makes you wait a while—my current hero, Lucas, didn’t tell me his name right off the bat.

My first stopping place for choosing a name is the book “100,000+ Baby Names”—or, as I call it, “100,000+ Character Names.” It’s full of names from the traditional to the trendy, and it’s a perfect place to start a character name search. I also use the site BabyNames.com, which must be a popular stopover for writers, as it includes an article entitled “Naming Tips for Writers” on its homepage. It includes options to search by letter, by gender, or by origin, so it’s a helpful starting place if you’re looking for a name from a specific nationality (I use a lot of Irish, Welsh, or Scottish names, for example.) These options also offer an opportunity to consider name meanings, which some writers like to incorporate into their stories. (Giving a character who’s a soldier a name that means warrior, strength, or champion, for example.)

Sometimes, especially if we’re writing fantasy or science fiction, the name we’re looking for can’t be found in any baby-name book. (Bilbo Baggins and Daenerys Targaryen are obviously the authors’ own creations, for example.) But just because it’s a name we’ve made up doesn’t mean it can’t resonate with our readers and stick in their heads. Even a created name can and should be memorable.

Lastly, a Sunday ROW80 check-in…

Writing goals

1.) Make measurable progress on one of my WIPs. Wrote 4,623 words in “The Phoenix Feather”—mostly in character backgrounds.

2.) Read four books on the craft/business of writing. 2/4. Finished reading “How to Market a Book” by Joanna Penn. Started reading “Beginnings, Middles, and Ends” by Nancy Kress.

Social media goals

1.) Check in on Twitter or Facebook daily. Met for every day except Thursday.

2.) Blog twice a week. Goal met.

3.) Comment on three-five blog posts daily, Monday-Thursday. Met for every day except Thursday.

Life goals

1.) Do yoga or tai chi or meditate three times per week. 2/3.

2.) Do morning pages in journal Monday-Friday. 4/5.

***

A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. It’s also a blog hop! Click here to cheer on fellow participants.

What about you? How do you come up with your character names? Does it ever take a while for a character to reveal his or her true name? Have you invented any names for your characters? Do you consider name meanings when choosing character monikers?

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30 thoughts on “For Writers: Naming Our Characters

  1. Character names can be tricky. I’ve had the same experience as you. The name has to fit, and it may take several tries to find one. And some are immediate. Sometimes they grow into their placeholder names. I’ve had that happen a few times, too. (I also have one character who refuses to give me his name. Weird.) The process is actually very fun. 😉

    Nice work on your goals.

    • I also find the process of naming characters fun, especially when you’re searching for a name and you stumble across the right one. I love the moment that a name clicks with a character. Sometimes it takes a few tries, though.

      Thanks! Have a great week! 🙂

  2. For me, discovering the character’s name is part of the joy of writing. In the novella I released today, A Beautiful Day in Alaska, I knew the female lead’s name right off because I wanted a strong personality. And in the book I published before, I had a female character who while hilarious was also on occasion snarky, but she had a presence. Her name was Robin, so I rolled that over into the novella. The book I’m working on now, I was just rough-draft writing when I came up with the name of the sheriff – Cletus Butane. I wasn’t even sure Butane was a real surname. I had to look it up! How silly is that?

    • Annette, I don’t think it’s silly at all. Just part of the random research that fills a writer’s day. 🙂

      I didn’t go into talking about surnames, but like you I’ve researched them. One of my recent WIPs had a female lead who had Scottish lineage, so I wanted to find a name that suited her and her family line. You’re right that a name has to fit a character’s personality, whether she’s playful, tough, snarky, scholarly, etc. And nicknames are important, too. I have one character who insists on being called Maddy, not Madeline, but another who goes by Katrina, but never Kat.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. My characters almost always tell me their names right away. Too bad it’s the only thing they give up that easily! Once in a while, minor characters don’t, so I go to name generators, or behindthename.com. What’s funny is a couple of those characters have gone on to take a much bigger role, but their names still fit.

    • That’s good. Sometimes a character tells me his/her name right away; sometimes it takes a little while. I usually figure out main characters’ names pretty quickly, just for practical purposes, but secondary characters can take a little longer.

      Name generators are a good option. I haven’t tried them, but I bet they’re especially helpful for minor characters. I’ve also had minor character who decided they wanted their own stories–two of them ended up with their own spin-off short story, actually. I love it when that happens. It makes the original story so much deeper when you’ve spent time in the heads of minor characters.

      Thanks, Jennette!

  4. Names in general often give me fits, Character names, story titles, planets, alien races, you name it. It is interesting how when we do find the name you know its right. I sometimes use last names of players from my favorite teams. Great post!

    • I find place names especially hard, too–even more so when I have to create an entire world as opposed to a single fictional town. But naming a place–a mountain range, a river, a city or town, a planet–helps bring it to life, so it’s something we have to do. After all, where would fiction be without Hogwarts, Wonderland, or the Shire? 🙂

  5. I find that unless the names feel right I have trouble believing in them and writing about them. Usually they just jump out when I am searching online. It was the case for my WIP. Great post. Surnames and place names can be tricky but these aren’t as crucial for me when I am writing. These I often change midway.

    • “I find that unless the names feel right I have trouble believing in them and writing about them.”

      I completely agree with this. If the name isn’t right I have trouble hearing their voice – and their general POV – in my head. It makes for a lot of frustration sometimes, but I’m glad I’m not the only one!

      • Very true, Jessie. I found this with my current WIP. Once I learned my hero’s name, his voice was so much stronger in my head and his view of the world was so much more vivid.

    • I don’t mind not knowing the names of minor characters, but it definitely helps to know my main characters’ names before I get beyond the first chapter. Word’s find and replace feature is a lifesaver–if I decide to change a name, I just hit “replace all.” And place names tend to reveal themselves more gradually. Sometimes I have to get a feel for a place or create a map before I can start naming geographic locations. My worlds tend to deepen as the story progresses, so knowing a city/place name from the start isn’t crucial.

  6. It sounds like my naming process is similar to yours, and many fellow commenters. Most of the time the name comes as I’m first meeting the character. Occasionally (as was the case of a young techie I’m writing) I can only think of other people my (actor/actress) avatar has played. Unfortunately, in the case of the techie, I’d already used that name in the WIP.

    After a while, and a lot of hair pulling, she told me that her father was Italian and I already knew she was incredibly enthusiastic and all-round joyful. All of a sudden I had two leads: Italy and her bright disposition. Finally I landed on Allegra, which meant “cheerful, lively” and has connection to music, which is a nice bonus. She’s been Allie ever since and it feels like a perfect fit. 😀

    Congrats on all your progress and best of luck this week!

    • Allie/Allegra is a great character name. It’s wonderful when you’re able to find a name that’s just the right fit. I have a character named Zoe who’s of Greek lineage. Zoe means “life” in Greek, and the name suits her. She’s a very strong, very active character and that name just has the right energy.

      Thanks, Jessie!

  7. I use the baby name book method too, at least if I’m setting a story in an English-speaking setting. For fantasy, I’ve played with name generators, or varying names from a specific culture that has similarities to my fantasy world. For foreign cultures, I do a lot of googling. 🙂

    • If a name doesn’t come to me immediately, I usually turn to the baby name book. Mine definitely gets a lot of use. I haven’t used a name generator yet, but I bet they’re useful for fantasy/sci-fi worlds. Thanks, Ruth!

  8. Thank you for sharing your process Denise. Since I’m a newbie, I don’t have the experience you do and it is really helpful. I will say that with my current WIP, those characters really spoke to me and I didn’t have much trouble naming them. But who knows what will happen in the future. So I appreciate your suggestions. 🙂

    • Thanks, Karen. Sometimes character names come to me right away; other times it takes a little while before a character tells me his/her name. It tends to vary with each story and every character. Good luck with your writing! 🙂

  9. For me, the main characters and their names tend to come before the story. Having gotten an idea for a character, I start to think what their story is. Sometimes the story changes, though. For the series I’m currently writing with my co-author, the protagonist began her “life” in a fantasy short story as a professional duelist. Then she was translated into a sci-fi series.

    I’ve never gone out looking for the name of a main character. For the names of minor, I often read history, looking for people that remind me of the character in some way and often combining a couple of names to come up with something we think fits.

    For sci-fi place names, I generally use names that derive in some way from the place / culture that whatever we are writing about is related to. (We haven’t dealt with aliens yet. The names of aliens I imagine can be a huge pain. I’d probably just call them all Bob.)

    Glad I happened upon this site!

    • Thanks for commenting, Owen. I love the process of naming characters, even if it sometimes takes me a few tries to find the right name. Coming up with names for aliens would be hard. I guess you’d have to spend a lot of time thinking about their language and culture and find names that have the right sound. I would be curious to learn how sci-fi writers come up with names for alien races.

      Writing fantasy, some of the names are ones I’ve made up, while others are from the culture that I’m pulling mythology from–Welsh or Greek, for example. One of my favorite created character names is Kahlan Amnell from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. For some reason, that name just sticks in my mind as a favorite. (And I love Tolkien’s Frodo and Samwise, of course!)

      • We would be curious to know how authors come up with names for aliens — or aliens for that matter. We made the decision not to “go there”, at least in this arc of the series. Coming up with aliens that are alien enough but not so alien as to be incomprehensible, is a very good trick. Although I suppose that depends on what role the aliens play in the story. Personally, I wouldn’t choose to include characters (alien of otherwise ) I couldn’t identify with to some extent, but that’s just me.

        Fantasy does offer a lot of options from history, myth, etc. We are embarking on a trilogy this year, concerning Amazons in a historical context, but with elements of fantasy (maybe), so it’s a matter of picking names for them from the Greek, that aren’t Greek, but might plausibly translate into Greek as the names we know. For example, we decided that the name of the Amazon queen known in Greek as Penthesileia was Kel Szélánya. It’s a challenge, and a lot of fun.

  10. Sometimes I don’t know where the name comes from. Honestly, I will put a name in, and thus it sticks or I change it. Some stories I know exactly the name and where it’s going, other times it takes a bit to find it. i will admit that I often use friends names to start off with and sometimes the character becomes an extension of the person. I also like creating my own names. so, I guess a little bit of everything.

    • I’ve used different methods. Sometimes I just know a character’s name; other times I’ll make one up. Sometimes it takes a while before a character tells me his or her name. I don’t think there’s one right way to name our characters, as long as the name we end up with feels true to that character.

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