Choosing Your Character’s Name

Choosing the name of a character in your novel is a bit like reading the book Where’s Waldo? You can search forever and never find just the right one.

Creativity

You want to be creative, but not too creative.

You say, “It has to fit the person in the book.”

That is a huge weight to place on your character. And what if you need to change the name later?

Can’t Remind Me of Someone I Know

I can understand that. Naming your evil mastermind after your mother might make for an interesting Thanksgiving meal time.

You do get to choose!

Don’t Make Your Reader Stop with a “What?”

I have come across some unusual names in real life:

Haight and Rayge (brothers)
Twelver (he is the 12th kid in the family)
Cash Money (first and last name)
Candy Caine (I went to high school with her. She could only dress up one way at Halloween.)
Ulakita Ulakita (played basketball against him in high school)
Har$ (pronounced Harmony)
Starscream (Yep, named after a Transformer.)
Beau and Arrow (twin brothers)

My father worked in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) during WWII. He collected an amazing list of odd names he came across during his years working various cases. He told me that after awhile nothing came as a surprise.

Resources

Tamela has written a number of great blogs on this topic that can help you with naming your characters. Please take a look at them:

“What’s in a Name?”
“Naming Names”
“Any Name Will Do”

Your Turn:

How did you pick the names in your novel?

Why did you reject certain names?

Where did you find your names?

 

24 Responses to Choosing Your Character’s Name

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott March 9, 2020 at 3:59 am #

    In a past hospital job, I saw the daily list of new-baby names. One such list included “Tomorrow.” I wondered if it was a misunderstanding; perhaps the mother said, “I’ll name my baby tomorrow.” Maybe the child went through life as “Tom.”

  2. Avatar
    Lori Hatcher March 9, 2020 at 5:15 am #

    In my day job as a dental hygienist I once had a patient named Thom Christmus. We crowned his anterior teeth, but the case got lost somewhere between the dental office and the lab. When we called to find out where his crowns were, I told the girl who answered the phone, “All we want for Christmus is his two front teeth.” True story.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 9, 2020 at 6:30 am #

    The name, it is the passport
    to what one is to be,
    and as such, cannot afford
    a parent’s vanity.
    The stylish mod pretenses
    or prideful family ties
    may simply build blank fences
    before another’s eyes
    that obscure essential truth
    of character ‘hind cleverness,
    and there may be no way of proof,
    no way that one can now redress
    the burden that is placed at birth
    that so defines the path and worth.

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    Loretta Eidson March 9, 2020 at 7:12 am #

    One of the funniest names I’ll never forget is Formica Dinette. I had a hard time believing someone would name their child after a piece of furniture, but I’ve heard some pretty weird ones since then. I collect names from just being out in public, waitress names, cashier names, hairstylists, etc. I search their meanings, and if one resonates with me, I use it. Otherwise, I search for baby names and their definitions on the internet.

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    Roberta Sarver March 9, 2020 at 7:13 am #

    A teacher once had a student named Abcde. She pronounced it AB’-suh-dee. I went to school with a girl named Mary Christmas. You have to wonder why parents do that to their kids.

    • Avatar
      Bry March 9, 2020 at 7:28 am #

      LOL! I mentioned ABCDE too. LOL!

  6. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell March 9, 2020 at 7:25 am #

    My main character is named after the biblical Daniel. He’s not righteous but he’s in a “den of lions”. Kristine is his love interest. She’s a positive influence on him and comes from a Christian background. The demon who ushers Daniel through Hell has lofty goals and thinks highly of himself, so he has a distinctive kingly name, Charles.

    I remember passing on Kristina and Christina. Kristine is close to “pristine” and alludes to Christine Daae from the “Phantom of the Opera”. I can’t remember any other rejected names.

    I looked in baby name books and online for meanings of names. I thought about favorite characters in fiction and history. I wondered what my characters’ parents motivations would have been to give the name.

    How about “abcde”? pronounced ab-sid-ee.

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    Carol Ashby March 9, 2020 at 8:11 am #

    Picking the right name is both hard and easy for me. I write Roman-era historicals, so I am limited by rigid historical naming conventions. There were only 20 male first names in common use, with the top 3 accounting for 60%. The oldest son always shared his dad’s name. I solved that duplication problem in one book be having the older brother die young. In another, the second son arranged an accident to become oldest son before the story started. His second son tries the same in another story but dad is off-screen except for the last chapter, so sharing wasn’t a problem.

    I use lists of Roman consuls for elites, military lists and memorial inscriptions for regular Roman citizens, a scholarly article for Roman slave names, Google translate for other slave names (you were named what you did), the Bible for Jewish names, and baby name lists for names that are “ancient Germanic.”

    I always include a list of characters and how they are related right before Chapter 1 so it’s easy for a reader to check someone out if they forget who they are.

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    Tamelia Aday March 9, 2020 at 8:29 am #

    I usually use the first name that comes to mind without too much thought. After a few characters in I make sure they do not start with the same letter. Seems odd but the more I think about a name the harder it is to come up with one. Also of course, I don’t want to use names of friends and relatives. Unfortunately I’ve been writing a book for so long that I’m starting to meet the characters I’ve made up.

  9. Avatar
    Nancy Massand March 9, 2020 at 8:32 am #

    My protagonist is named Mavis, inspired by a classy and warm-hearted woman who first made me feel welcomed in a church long ago. It’s an uncommon but not contrived name, and it fits the character. Her love interest is Harris, a strong, centered name. Harris in the story is strong, but definitely not centered. He’ll have to grow into that. Both names have very different first syllables but the same last syllables, paralleling their life paths. Names carry weight and in some cases prophecy.

  10. Avatar
    Morgan Tarpley Smith March 9, 2020 at 8:32 am #

    Great info, Steve. I realized that when I thought my names of my characters were so diverse and different that really many of them ended in “a.” lol! They began with different letters but ended with “a.” So I had to reevaluate. That’s one reason I had to change up some names. Overall, I try to find the balance of an easy name to say but not too common.

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    P.I. Barrington March 9, 2020 at 8:42 am #

    I have at least 10 used baby name books that I use constantly. Most of the time, however, my characters tell me their names. For example: Elektra Tate, Isadora DayStar, etc. Many times I simply go with a particular spelling to create a particular pronunciation & character image: Alekzander Brede.

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    Sharon K Connell March 9, 2020 at 9:11 am #

    Like Tamelia, above, I pick the first name for the main character that comes to mind when I start the story. The rest of the characters follow as they play parts in my scenes. I go to a list of all the names I’ve already used in other books and make sure none of them are there. But before I set any name in stone, I think about their heritage and what year they were born. For example, the name of my main character in my most recently published book is Alanna. Of Irish decent and born in the 1990s.

    That character started out as Alexa. But the more I thought about that name, the more I wondered if it would distract my reader. Advertising of a home device called Alexa could pull my readers thoughts out of the story. Then, as I sat at the dinner table with Steve Laube at the writers conference I went to last year, I thought about my character and asked him what he thought about the name. He gave me good advice when he said he’d change it. So I did.

    Alanna was born in Ireland. Therefore, I did my research on names given to girls in Ireland.

    As with P.I., I have a couple of baby books full of names, and like Shirlee, I worked with names in a doctor’s office and hospital, so names are not hard for me to come by. The hard part is fitting the name, both first and last, to the characters. I try to do that for all of them, not must the main ones.

    Besides the already used names from other books, I reject names that are hard to pronounce. I don’t want my readers stumbling over them. I also reject names starting with the same letters as other characters, if the two characters are of the same gender.

  13. Avatar
    Jack Bannon March 9, 2020 at 9:57 am #

    I try to give my characters believable first names so that readers won’t be jarred out of the story like I am when I’m trying to read about a main character named Talantha or Dupree. I also want names to be different enough so that characters won’t be confused. If I have an Alec in my project, the name Alex will probably be off limits for me.

    After that, I pay attention to the heritage of my characters, if there is a French connection in my story I may use “Americanized” versions of French surnames like Martin or Durant, but unless I really need a Frenchman, I won’t have a character named Richelieu or Boivin. Of course if my main character winds up overseas, then things like that become more important.

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    Steven Stoops March 9, 2020 at 11:25 am #

    I have a character that goes by his last name merely because he didn’t like being known as Jerry Lewis. I have spent some time at this site (https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/decades/names2000s.html) and have been pleasantly surprised by Biblical names remaining close to the top, with boys names at least.

    When I first saw the title of this piece I got interrupted, so I shared it to my email so I could read it later. In the time since I began to muse over character naming. Whether or not certain types of names could work in certain types of novels.

    For instance, if your novel is based in the 1980s a character named Moon-Unit might make sense, providing the character was born in the 60s or 70s. If the character was a grizzled homicide detective . . . not so much.

    Unless it is Sci-Fi, then it could work:

    It could be; Moon-Unit Parker: Homicide.

    The story of how Moon-Unit witnessed the murder of his mother as a child. As a young adult he discovers time travel and goes back in time to become a police detective so he could try to solve his mother’s murder.

    I can see the obligatory melodramatic scene in the police captain’s office:

    “Parker, you have to stop beating up the suspects! This is 1985, not 1955.”

    “But, Captain, he was making fun of my name.”

    “Parker, if I’ve told once, I’ve told you a thousand times, just go by your initials. What’s wrong with M. U. Parker?”

    “But, boss, my name is all I have from my mother, since her murder.”

    The sequels could be Dirty Moon-Unit, and The Maltese Moon-Unit.

    OK, so it would be comedic Sci-Fi . . .

  15. Avatar
    Lisa Rae Morris March 9, 2020 at 12:34 pm #

    I have a four-step process for choosing character names.

    If it’s a spirit being like an angel or demon, I give it either an ethnic name based on a specific meaning in that regional language, or I give it a Greek name whose meaning signifies a personality trait. After going through the two steps of ethnicity and meaning, I also make sure there isn’t another fictional character of the same name out there somewhere. Fourth, I make sure it’s easy to read and pronounce.

    If it’s a human, I start with popular names in the person’s location and year of birth. Then I narrow down by meaning. Finally, I make sure there isn’t a real famous person by the same name. A few times, I’ve been really glad I checked!

    But most of all, I’ve gotta love the name. I’m going to be writing it and talking about it for years to come, so I take time to do a great job in choosing it.

  16. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. March 9, 2020 at 12:35 pm #

    Hi Steve:
    I once worked with a “Skid Rowe.” His parents must have been charming people. He was quite nice, from what I could tell.

    I chose names that would be appropriate for my characters. Victoria Susan was a logical name for the character’s circumstances, since she had contact with recent royalty (Victoria was for Queen Victoria and Susan is the first name of Kate Middleton’s mother). Her husband was Kurt, which described the kind of man he was. Brooke’s name came from a stream that ran near Kurt’s family home when he was a little boy. Thanks for asking.

  17. Avatar
    JACQUELINE HOUCHIN March 9, 2020 at 1:29 pm #

    I went to high school with a Melody Hummer, my husband had a high school friend Jerry Derryberry.

    My maiden name was Love. I went to dental assistant school, and they were matching up apprentices with Dentists for a month long internship. They had placed me with a Dr. Darling. Can you imagine me answering the phone, “Good morning, Dr Darling’s office, Miss Love speaking??? True Story. Fortunately I was unable to work the hours he wanted because I also had a night job. I was placed with a respectable Dr. Mintzer.

  18. Avatar
    Jennifer Haynie March 9, 2020 at 4:06 pm #

    Another good place to learn names? The pediatrician’s office. My dad was a pediatrician, and I worked there for a summer. Unfortunately, I can’t share the most interesting one in public. Ask me about it at BRMCWC.

  19. Avatar
    Melanie Carter Winkler March 9, 2020 at 7:41 pm #

    I generally choose names i like. With my first novel the names of the main characters just came to me. Though in one i wanted the initials JET and that made my character and Native American. In another i decided to use some Shakespearean names. Then in one i wanted their names to mean something. Baby name sites are great for that.
    Though talking about naming characters famous is not good. A friend had the start of a novel with a Daniel Craig (played James Bond) though it wasn’t based on him, but every time i heard the name… I thought of him.

  20. Avatar
    Melanie March 10, 2020 at 1:43 am #

    Sheri, my sister’s name is Susan Victoria. The weirdest names I’ve heard are War Eagle (first and middle names given by Auburn fans) and Joyful Noise, also first and middle. Joyful was born in the 1980s.

    For my female protagonist, she’s the survivor of a gruesome crime, so I wanted a name that could be shortened. Andrea before the crime, Andie after. It’s both a masculine and juvenile version of her name, which speaks to the level of protection she puts up. The male protagonist is Gary. I know they end in the same sound, and while I’m half in love with Chief Gary Underwood, I could be swayed. The teenage kidnap victim is Phoebe. Her mom was a “Friends” fan.

  21. Avatar
    Paula Geister March 11, 2020 at 8:45 am #

    I’ve named a couple characters in my short stories Pamela and Carla. It started decades ago and continues to this day that if someone calls me by the wrong name, it’s either Pamela or Carla. I figured I may as well capitalize on it.

    I keep a list of both first and last possible names in one of my notebooks. I hear them in television or film. As I’m scribbling them in I often think of others.

  22. Avatar
    Karen Spencer March 11, 2020 at 9:07 am #

    I just completed what I hope are the final revisions on my very first novel – and to say that it was a labor of love would be an understatement. During the outline development, not only did the names of my characters change several times, but the title of the book changed at least three. Eventually, I decided to use the names of dearly departed ancestors. When it comes to my Irish roots, they’re highlighted by the Trainer family name. The name Nellie came from my Great-grandmother Nellie Trainer, whose mother was named Sarah. However, in “A Love Denied,” my main character’s name is Sarah Trainer, and Nellie Doyle is the raven-haired beauty who shows up to capture her grandson Josh’s’ heart. I don’t think my nephew Joshua will mind the use of his name – considering my character, Josh Trainer becomes a Pastor.
    As far as my father’s Kentucky side of the family, I used photo-copies from old Bibles and historical hand-written documents as well as oral communications to find my Cherokee Indian names. In real life, Daniel and Polly Amos are written in our family records as half brother and sister back in the 1890’s. Which means that the always helpful, Polly Whosoever, only exist in my heart along with the rest of my beloved characters.
    Also, another interesting nugget turned up while I was reviewing an online Indian Records Website. Imagine my excitement when the name Daniel Amos appeared on the Dawes Rolls, for the Trail of Tears. Although I’m not sure if he was our Daniel, I choose to believe that he was.
    Reply

  23. Avatar
    sara March 12, 2020 at 1:43 pm #

    Lucky for me, I know a thing or two about names. My twin sister is named after a type of angel, and I have a huge number of siblings.
    So for me, I’d rather just choose a name that fits well with the genre of the book, and is not too difficult to pronounce.

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