How to Name Characters

Doug Jones

Doug Jones in Candy Shop

As I mentioned in a previous postNaming characters is an art.

What follows is a list of methods and things to consider when creating/choosing names for your fictional characters.

Something old, something new

Some writers use listings for naming children or popular names in different cultures/languages.  These sources may be found in book form at your local library or online.  To look online, simply run a search on your favorite search engine for the language/culture and the type of names you’re looking for, i.e. “Celtic names” or “popular Irish names” or “French female names”.  You can even search for popular names by year or decade (“popular boy baby names 1940’s”). (I’ve done these searches and found a number of great names.)

Something borrowed, something blue

Some writers look in the dictionary or a language-translation dictionary (or similar text) and pick out words that fit their character’s image by meaning and/or sound. (Guilty.)  These can be the primary words being defined or words from its etymology. (This is one of my favorites.)  Others have told me that they put together words or partial words (phonemes) and letters on a page and scramble them around until they see something they like.  This method can render some very unusual names. (I’ve tried this.)  Authors who have the training and/or guts to create a new language (Elvish, Martian, Na’vi,…) will use words from the new alien vocabulary to give their character’s names “authenticity”. (I’ve dabbled in this one too.)

Let’s hear it

I need to pause here momentarily to insist that you say the name you’re creating out loud (especially if it’s unusual).  Make sure it is easily pronounced and sounds in your ears as you imaged it.  This is important as your readers will have an easier time reading and talking about your characters if their names are easy to read and say.  And imagine if you are giving an interview and the interviewer asks you about a character whose name they can’t pronounce or they mispronounce it because you haven’t trained them in the proper inflections of Northern Malgornian Wood-Spritish. (Not an easy language to pick up. 😉)

Quacks like a duck

Key to the name game, in a three way tie with readability and pronounce-ability: the name should sound like it belongs to the character.  This, of course, does not apply to false names given by the character to deceive.  However, his true, given name should be something appropriate to his upbringing culture.  Often the best names reflect some aspect of the character’s persona.  It’s no accident that J.K. Rowling, in her hit Harry Potter series, gave Snape a name that sounds like “snake”.  I gave my character Snegaddrick (from With a Jester of Kindness) his name for the same reason; he’s a sinister serpent of a man.  His brother Ergyfel got his name because he is the villain and a worker of evil, and my protagonist got the name Billy (William), because it is different in sound and weight from all the other characters in the book.  Each of these names helps my readers keep the characters straight and gives them a good “handle” on their personalities.

Looks like a duck

Another facet of name-sounding is imagery.  When  you hear the name aloud, do you see an image in your mind?  Is this image compatible with your character’s image?  You may wish to embed this in your name creation process.

Be curt

Names should be (relatively) short.  Do not use character names that take a line on the page to spell out.  Besides the wrapping problems, waste of space and carpel tunnel you’ll get from typing them, long names are generally hard to pronounce, break the reader’s suspense of reality, and can be accomplished with less letters.  If you must have a character with a ridiculously long name (for effect), give also that character a nickname or a shortened version of her name that is easy to say and read.  Of course if humor is your intent, an impossibly long name can sometimes accomplish a lot.  But remember how much Douglas Adams accomplished with names like Zaphod Beeblebrox and Slartibartfast (The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy).  OK, so these are a tiny bit long, but I can’t imagine these characters with better names, can you?

Cut the Cookie-cutter names

One last thing.  When choosing names for your characters, try to use names that don’t all sound the same.  For instance, if you’ve got a character with the name Suzi,  don’t name another character Suzy or Susan or Sushi or Zusi.  Names that look or sound alike can cause confusion.  Keep your name choices unique and distinct.  Avoid names that start with the same letter when possible.  One luxury of writing fantasy and science fiction is that character’s names can be quite exotic.  Why is this a boon?  The ability to give your characters unique names (and still fit the setting) helps to make them more memorable (i.e. Strider, Obi Wan, Elric, Ripley, Pug, Bones, Gandolf, Spok, Hogfather, Morpheus, Mordred).  Don’t go overboard, but by all means use your imagination!

I will be discussing specifics for naming fantasy and Science Fiction characters in later posts.  Please stay tuned!

Please leave me a comment about the names of your favorite characters or anything else related to naming them. 🙂

OW Original


2 thoughts on “How to Name Characters

  1. Cool post! I LOVE naming characters. Although it’s sometimes tough to get it right, it’s one of my favorite things to do with a WIP. And thanks for making the comment system easier. There’s a name for that: “awesome!” 🙂

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