Choosing names for fictional characters seems like one of the “fun” parts of writing … until you actually have to choose them. It appears simple on the surface, but there’s a lot more that goes (or should go) into the process than just picking a name you like or a random one out of a hat.
While Juliet famously argued that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, the fact is, characters by any other name can stink. Holden Caulfield, Eliza Doolittle, Scarlett O’Hara, Harry Potter. These characters’ names are unforgettable, and it’s impossible to imagine the stories being the same if their names were Joe Smith or Mary Jones.
There’s a monumental difference between memorably-named characters and those who readers can only recall as “the wife in that book” or “the villain guy.” So, how should you go about naming characters in your writing? Here are seven tips to help.
1. Ponder personalities
The fact is, names say something about us, and people often base at least their initial impressions of people on their names. This is truer than ever when it comes to fictional literature in which authors rely on words to bring their characters to life.
Whether people take on the qualities their names personify, or vice versa, isn’t clear. Nevertheless it is uncanny: when you learn someone’s name, you often immediately think, “Oh, they’re such a Judy/Tom/Persephone.”
You want your characters’ names to elicit the same reaction to some degree. Just be careful about wading into cliche territory. Before you christen your characters, ask yourself the tough questions—does the world really need another stripper named Crystal, a popular jock named Dirk, or a cowboy named Maverick?
As you’re choosing names, you may want to run them by friends or family members and ask them what kind of person they picture for each name. While you may get differing opinions, if you sense a recurring theme, it can help you decide on a name that is just right or hint that you need to go back to the naming board.
2. Scrutinize the setting
Names vary in popularity by time period and region, and while you can certainly make a statement about a character and their background with an unusual name, some are just too big of a leap. Can you imagine Scarlett O’Hara anywhere but in the deep south during the Civil War? Would a Jagger make any sense in the mid-18th century?
While some names make comebacks (e.g., Hazel, Henry, etc.), be sure you take into account which names are or were popular in your chosen setting. The Social Security Administration has a tool that allows you to see the most popular baby names for each decade going back to 1900, and sites like Nameberry can provide more information about a name’s origins and popularity over time as well.
Also, be sure to check a name’s ethnic origins. For example, you don’t want to give a Chinese character a Japanese name unless there’s a believable background to explain why.
3. Find meaning in a name
Make sure you’re aware of the meaning behind the names you choose and consider using them intentionally without being too obvious. For example, instead of naming a character who is hopeful for something Hope, you may want to consider a name like Nadia, which means hope. Or perhaps you name a character who has a positive attitude Felicia, which means happy.
What you don’t want to do is get caught giving a character a name that completely contradicts their personality, such as naming a depressed character Felicia … unless, of course, you’re doing so ironically and on purpose.
4. Use variety
Some families think it’s cute to give all their children names that start with the same letter (ahem, Kardashians), but giving characters in the same book names that are too similar can be confusing for readers.
For example, having a Carl and Carter in the same book could leave readers flipping pages back and forth trying to remember which one did what when.
5. Consider nicknames
While you don’t want to confuse readers, having a name that has an easily associated nickname is a way to show relational status between two characters. For example, if a character typically goes by Robert but a friend calls him Bobby, you know they’re probably pretty chummy.
If the nickname is strong enough it can also be a powerful way to show how different a character’s personality is from their given name. Think about Jean Louise “Scout” Finch in Harper Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird.
6. Say it out loud
While some names look fine in print, when you say them out loud they sound clunky or become tongue twisters. Especially with the proliferation of audio books, you want to make sure the names sound as good out loud as they do in your head.
7. Don’t get too hung up on the names
Character names are important, but don’t let them get in the way of your writing progress. You can always start with one that seems to embody the character, then as your story progresses and you further develop your character, you can change it to better suit them.
Maybe your protagonist starts out as Billy, but halfway through you realize he is most certainly not a Billy, and you change his name to Bartholomew. That’s OK! Plus, there’s always the use of placeholders like ROOMMATE, MOTHER-IN-LAW or TENNIS PARTNER as stand-ins until you feel like you know your characters well enough to name them.
The final word on naming characters
Certainly, there are more significant aspects that impact a work of literature—things like plot, pacing, and character development. Don’t write off strong character names though; they are important details that deserve careful consideration and contribute to the overall impact of a story.