Naming characters can be nearly as stressful as naming a newborn.
You want interesting and memorable names, but not quirky or outrageous — unless you’re writing a comedy.
You definitely don’t want boring names.
When you hit on the right name, you’ll know it. And if you’re like me, your favorite novels have unforgettable characters whose names alone evoke memories of the great read.
Do these ignite anything in you? If they do, you will likely instantly remember the titles they come from.
- Atticus Finch
- Jane Eyre
- Harry Potter
- Frodo Baggins
- Sherlock Holmes
- Katniss Everdeen
So, how do you create character names that stand the test of time?
Tips For Naming Your Characters
1. Make them memorable.
I like my character names to have a little music to them.
If you choose a common first name, make the last name interesting, maybe with an alternate spelling.
For example, if I were to name one of my characters Jenkins, I might spell it the Old English way of Jenkyns.
It’s still easy to pronounce, and readers can hear it in their heads, but it becomes more memorable because of the spelling.
2. Look for meaning.
Many baby name books and databases include etymologies, traditional meanings, or history.
The Matrix uses symbolic names.
Smith is a generic name and the character is an Artificial Intelligence able to become any person in the Matrix.
Neo means new, and the character is new to reality and a novice at everything.
Morpheus, named after the god of dreams, points out to Neo that what he thought was reality is an electronic dream.
3. Lend names meaning.
Allegories call for less than subtle names like Prudence or Truth or Pride.
I wrote a Christmas parable (Twas the Night Before) in which I named the main character Tom Douten (get it? Doubting Thomas), and his fiancee was Noella (Christmasy, a believer in Santa) Wright (Miss Right).
Your theme and the roles your characters play require research of the meanings of their names.
George Lucas named his Star Wars villain with a variant of the word dark(Darth) and the Dutch word for father (Vader).
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings character Frodo Baggins came from the Old English fróda, which means “wise by experience.”
4. Make them fit.
Your character’s name can hint at his personality.
In The Green Mile, Stephen King names a weak, cowardly character Percy Wetmore.
Also consider ethnicity and family names. You wouldn’t name a Greek character Bubba Jackson.
The name you choose should be historically and geographically accurate and fit your genre.
You wouldn’t name characters Jaxon or Brandi, for instance, in a story set in Elizabethan England.
5. Keep names reader friendly.
Be careful of names difficult to pronounce, unless it becomes part of the story.
I created a character named Wojciechowski and had him tell another character, “Just call me W.”
6. Keep character names distinct.
If I had 26 characters in my novel, I’d start each of their names with a different letter — whatever it takes to differentiate them and not confuse the reader.
If you break this rule of thumb, make sure your first and last names are different enough from each other to stand out — J.K. Rowling used Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Helga Hufflepuff, and Hedwig.
7. Give your main characters nicknames.
Another way to make your main characters memorable is to assign them nicknames that only their close friends and family use. Princess Gwendolyn may be “Gwen” or “Lyn” to her sister, for example.
But be careful not to overdo this.
8. Keep pronunciations in mind.
Character Name Sources
1. Baby name lists
Websites like this one suggest names for both genders and most also include the origin, ethnicity, and meaning.
I’ve even gotten story ideas from such information.
- Search for baby names in other countries. Sometimes, the more exotic, the better.
- Search for baby names popular in the past by specifying the decade your story is set in.
2. Online character name generators
Give this tool a try and you might love the combinations it suggests.
Beware of relying heavily on these kinds of tools. They’re powered by AI and some suggest nonsensical options.
Instead, view name generators as a source of inspiration.
3. World Almanacs or Atlases
I often refer to these to create names of foreign characters.
I’ll pair the first name of a current government leader in a country with the last name of one of their historical figures — but not one so famous that the reader wonders if he’s related, like François Bonaparte.
Movies, sitcoms, even commercials and the news often contain memorable names. Watch for names just different enough to work.
J.K. Rowling found some of her Harry Potter character names in a graveyard.
Pay attention to the names of people you meet, including flight attendants, cashiers, and servers.
Combine the names of people you admire.
Anagrams are a fun way to hide important clues in plain sight.
Popular examples include:
- The Matrix — Neo is an anagram for One.
- The Harry Potter series — Tom Riddle Marvolo rearranges to spell “I am Lord Voldemort.”
- A Series of Unfortunate Events — Al Funcoot is an anagram for Count Olaf.
- I once named a contemporary character Paul Stepola. Anagram that last name to see what I was implying.
Make It Fun to Pick Character Names
Don’t rush the naming process or settle on the perfect name before bringing your character to life.
My Character Arc Worksheet can help you do that.