Naming Your Characters

Naming Your Characters

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The easy way to name your characters is to just think up a name that seems appropriate for someone in their position and use that name. For minor or single appearance characters, that’s okay. There are reasons that just any name won’t do when it comes to main characters. The reader needs to be able to remember the name and recognize them when they reappear. How can you pick good names?

Good Character Names

The best character names are one of a kind. No other writer has used the name before and not much comes up in an internet search. Just for fun, I did a search for Zedock Balbao, a name I made up. I got 9 results and none were for the full name. Sounds like a good name for an Italian detective specializing in tracking international serial killers.

Try to find names that match the character’s personality if possible. Lee Child’s vigilante hero Jack Reacher has a unique name that tells a bit about who he is. Jack is an anonymous name because it is so common and Jack wants to be anonymous. Reacher reflects on the reach of a 6 foot 5 inch tall man. He also still has connections from his time as a military cop. A different kind of reach. Jack Reacher is an anonymous man with a long reach.

Make the name fit a character’s class. Poor people, addicts, and drinkers, give their children weird names. Middle class people go for normal names. Rich people re-use the names of royalty and politicians.

Make the name fit a character’s ethnic background. Second generation immigrants usually have first names matching the country they were born in while the family name still matches the country their parents came from.

There is another naming tip similar to the ethnic one. A common name matched with an uncommon one is a good unique name. Make the uncommon name the one the character will be referred to most often. For example, Jack Reacher goes by Reacher.

Make names fit a character’s age. Old folks have names that you won’t hear for young people. They won’t have names that have only recently become popular. Children born in the 60s sometimes have flower child names.

Make names pronounceable. Is the character from a foreign country? Find a short name that’s common there.

The most important names are those of your protagonists and antagonists. These should be names that will be easy to remember every time they appear. Nick Sharp, the psychopathic gang boss. The name makes you think he’d like to cut you. Ron Oberdine, the incompetent delivery driver always running into overtime. Molly Fein, the negotiator. Doesn’t the name sound like someone who can calm things down?

Bad Character Names

Unlike the real world, fictional names should fit the character. In some cases you may deliberately give a character a name that doesn’t fit. Adolf was named for a different Adolf before Hitler came to power and has been working hard to be a great philanthropist. Mary hates the fundamentalism that was forced on her as a child and became a bounty hunter to remake herself.

How do character names that will appear together look? Are there already famous or infamous people with those names? Bonnie and Clyde. Thelma and Louise.

You should also stay away from the names of famous people, even if they were only famous in books. No Winstons or Raskolnikovs please. We’ve all read 1984 and Crime and Punishment. On the other hand, if Mom was a conspiracy theorist, “Winston” can be explained away. But is that important to your story? It should be or it’s just a distraction.

Avoid more than one important character with the same first letter. Chris and Chip. Sarge and Serge. Readers will get them mixed up. The exception is characters who are always together. Raskolnikov’s closest friend was Razumikhin. Both names starting with R made that easy to remember.

You shouldn’t have two characters with similar sounding names. Ron and John. Carrie and Mary. Readers will get these mixed up too. Again, if the two are always together it could work.

Avoid having a lot of weird names unless the story is in a foreign country or alternate universe. One or two won’t hurt and you may need to use some weird names to make some characters easier to remember.

Beware of names ending with an s or s sound if you follow the grammar rule of using a double s on the possessive of such a name. It will hiss at the reader. James’s car. Hear it? If you omit the second s, you won’t have this problem. The rules of grammar say that the second s is optional.

Names You Can’t Use

You can’t use the name of a famous person, real or fictional, for a character in your novel unless they are meant to actually be that person. If you name your protagonist Arnold Schwarzenegger, you are asking to be sued. Google those names.

I thought I had violated this rule in my story about the adventures of a raccoon having an existential crisis, Bad Boy Brook. After it was up, I learned that the raccoon had the same name as the nickname of some country singer. He can’t be too famous. When I search the name in Google now, my story is the third link and no singer comes up.

Making Names Up

There are several ways to make up names that don’t exist.

Switch the first and last name or use two last names. Remember Remington Steele? How about Francis Xavier or Xavier Francis? The first one was a celebrated missionary. The second is a made up name and could be good for a white night character.

You can also look up baby names online. There are many name generators, some made just for writers.

Where to Get More Names

Create a name notebook. Save old phone books. Look for names everywhere. Blog comments, street and city names, the references in the back of textbooks, the names of products… If you’re into that kind of thing. I think this last step is overkill, but some people like it.

Now you should have no problem naming your characters.

Article by Ivan Izo.


One thought on “Naming Your Characters

  1. Reba May 13, 2016 / 7:59 pm

    Thanks a lot. This really helped me picking out my character names. Even though I sometimes use names from the references of books, and the phone-book never disappoints!


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