Naming your characters doesn’t sound that hard, does it?
Then why is it?
Naming characters can be nearly as stressful as naming a newborn.
You want something interesting and memorable, but not quirky or outrageous—unless you’re writing a comedy.
You definitely don’t want to be boring.
When you hit on the right name, you’ll know it. And I’d wager 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.
- Jay Gatsby
- Atticus Finch
- Jane Eyre
- Harry Potter
- Frodo Baggins
- Sherlock Holmes
- Katniss Everdeen
So, what’s the secret to creating character names that stand the test of time?
Tips For Naming Your Characters
1 — Make it memorable.
Typical names are easy to forget.
I like my character names to have a little music to them.
If you choose a common first name like Jim or Dan or Mary, make the last name interesting, maybe with an alternate spelling.
I wouldn’t name one of my characters Jenkins, but if I did, I might spell it the Old English way, J-E-N-K-Y-N-S.
It’s still easy to pronounce, and readers can “hear” it in their heads, but it becomes more memorable because of the unique spelling and isn’t easily forgotten.
2 — Lend it meaning.
Allegories call for telling names like Prudence and Truth and Pride, but modern stories should be more subtle.
I wrote a Christmas parable 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 role your characters play should go into your 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.”
Suzanne Collins’s heroine in The Hunger Games came from a plant with arrow-shaped leaves (the katniss) and from Bathsheba Everdene, a character in Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd.
3 — Make it fit.
Your character’s name can even 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.
4 — Keep it 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.”
5 — 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 from each other and not confuse the reader.
Where to Find Cool Character Names
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.
2 — Online character name generators
Give this tool a try and you might love the combinations it suggests. At least, it’ll give you ideas on which you can build.
3 — World Almanac or Atlas
I often refer to these to find names of foreign characters.
I’ll pair the first name of a current government leader in their 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.
4 — Wikipedia
5 — Media
Movies, sitcoms, even commercials and the news often contain memorable names. Watch for names just different enough to work.
6 — Life
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.
Time to Breathe Life Into Your Character
Don’t rush the naming process or settle on the perfect name without bringing your character to life.
My Character Arc Worksheet is a simple tool to help you do that.