Friday, June 29, 2012

How to Name your Characters

This baby is adorable! publicdomainpictures.net
“Mary—watch out! There’s a candy-spitting dragon coming in at twelve o’clock!”

“Aw, John, another dragon? Weren’t the fire-breathing-unicorns bad enough?”

That little snippet of dialogue could probably be turned into an interesting story—except for one major problem: the characters’ names. I mean, really, a fantasy story featuring dragon with main characters called Mary and John? That’s almost as bad as calling them Jane and Tarzan!

No doubt, as you’ve already learned from our little mini-series on names (see here and here), the names we bear and the names we give characters have extraordinary power. So as authors it’s important to focus on giving our characters the best names we can.

To do that, here’s a few tips.

1. Keep a name collection. 

  • List all your old favorites, your fabulous invented names, those book characters that you can’t get out of your head—last names, first names, place names. List normal names like Jason but don’t be afraid to go wild with names like Leopold Vincent Williams III. Whatever you do, keep it so that you can have a handy reference for later use whenever you’re stuck and need a name in a hurry.

2. Think about the time and place of your story.

  • If you’re writing historical fiction (or any story set in the past), be sure to research popular names at the time. Not taking the time to research a name can be disastrous: think, for example, of the Disney flop movie The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where medieval characters had names like Veronica and Belthazar. No wonder no one liked the movie!

  • If you’re writing fantasy, try to come up with different “sound systems” for each of your people groups. A sound system is basically a set of sounds used by that language, some similar to English, others different. Then select particular sounds out of the whole system to use for names. For example, maybe female names start with the sounds “Uu” or “Lo” whereas male names start with “Ma” or “Ki.” If you have multiple languages/people groups, make sure the names of each people group sound different enough to tell them apart.

  • If you’re writing science fiction, the same tips apply as for fantasy, above. However, you may also want to consider names with symbols or numbers. Plus, if you’ve got aliens with different vocal organs from humans, you could try to come up with a way to represent those languages on paper. It’d be a challenge, certainly, but it could take your writing from forgettable to memorable.

  • If you’re writing contemporary (on-earth-now) fiction, make sure the names are believable. If you still chose to use an outlandish name like “Dremnei,” have an explanation ready or else your readers won’t believe it. Also, be sure to consider the character’s ethnicity: you wouldn’t have a Japanese character named “Jane,” or an Indian character named “Will.” A great place to look for contemporary (modern) names is in movie credits, especially for the non-famous people like the crew members.

3. For unique names:

  • Scramble the letters in a normal name to get a new name. For example, Ethan could become Tehan or Nateh or Ehnat or any number of other possibilities.
  • Combine two common names into one. For example, Sarah and Janelle could combine to make a name like Saranelle or Janarah.
  • Type a sentence, phrase, the lyrics of a song, or even a random string of words together without spaces. Look for possible combinations of letters to use as names. For example: asyoulikeit (as you like it) could be a name like Asy, Olik, or Keit.
  • Use a common word and make it a name. Fiddle around with various spellings if you want to be a bit more subtle. For example, you could use the names Lavendyr, Thyme, Rust, or Rain for potentially strong, meaning-packed names.

4. Warnings


  • Make the name pronounceable. When we read, we hear the words in our head, and every time we read a word we can’t pronounce, our mind slows down until it comes up with a pronunciation for the word. The harder a name is to pronounce, the more your reader has to slow down and the more distracted they can get from the story.
  • Be aware of the associations with the names you chose. This is especially true if you use a famous name like Elvis. No matter how good your writing may be, it’ll be pretty hard to convince a reader to take a coldblooded assassin seriously if his name is Elvis. If you do use a famous name—the benefits being it could add great backstory to your characters—try to make it subtle. For example, instead of naming a character Audrey Hepburn, name her Audrey H. Lake.
  • Be sure to consider what nickname(s) the name would give your character. People tend to use nicknames with people they know well, so using a nickname is a great writing strategy to add realism to your story. However, if your character’s name is “Imortelle,” she might be stuck with a nickname like “Tell” or even “Telly.”
  • Think about the meaning of whatever name you choose. Sure, maybe the meaning won’t come up in the story, but it can add depth to a character nonetheless. Plus, you never know—the character’s name meaning might end up being an important factor in the story.
  • Consider the sounds of the name: soft, gentle sounds like “f,” “b,” “sh,” or “l” might give a character a different feel than a name with hard, clipped sounds like “k,” “t,” “v,” or “r.”
  • Don’t give multiple characters in your story similar-sounding names. For example, Billy and Bonnie will just confuse your readers. So will Jack and George and Jake and Jason. Make them distinct and memorable.


And that’s it—your simple guide for choosing the perfect name for your characters. Speaking of which, I think the names “Liddy” and “Dar” would be great for the fire-breathing-unicorn story.

6 comments:

  1. This post came just in time. I recently created a new character in my WIP and it has been a struggle to come up with the perfect name. Thanks for the great tips! I've already started brainstorming.

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    1. Oh, perfect! I'm so glad it's helpful!

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  2. Hey! I protest! I liked the Sorcerer's Apprentice!! ;) lol great post, though!! Lots of good insight! :D

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    1. You liked Sorcerer's Apprentice? Really? Well, you'd be the first (of the people I've met, at any rate). Haha, well, glad you enjoyed the post! And thanks for the comment!

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    2. Yeah, but then, I'm easily amused. ;D haha and np, it's a great blog! :D

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    3. The movie amused me (I own it, so I'm one to talk!) but I didn't want to watch it again after the first time. I guess my main problem with it was the main character--he just seemed difficult to sympathize with. But amusing, definitely. Still, I much prefer the National Treasure movies!

      Aw, thanks! So glad you're enjoying the blog!

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