Naming Your Characters

Tales have often told of the great power behind our names and that giving someone your name can allow them mastery over you. J.K. Rowling’s villain is only referred to as You-Know-Who or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, for fear the mere mention of his name, Voldemort, would bring his wrath. It’s no wonder then, as writer’s we often feel an overwhelming, even debilitating pressure to come up with great names for our characters. This is a wide topic, I’ll attempt to cover a few points and provide some resources.

Know Your Characters

Beginning a new novel or short story requires coming up with a playbill of characters, major and minor, who all need names. Before you attempt to pick the perfect name for your characters, you should know them first. When and where were they born? Who are their parents and what things influenced them? Were they named after someone? Are they good, evil or in between? Do they have a strong personality or a more reserved one? Finding the answers to these questions can lead you to the type of name you want to use. Perhaps their parents were quite young when they had your character and named them after their favourite band. Little Bon Jovi has a nice ring to it.

Names to Fall in Love or Hate With

If you’re working with a novel length work, or a series, it’s important you choose names you like because you’re going to live with them for a long, long (did I say long?) time. From first draft through to the final, you may spend months, even years with these characters. Don’t pick a name you don’t like or a name that reminds you of someone you despise. Likewise, your fans will live with your characters throughout the journey of your book. You want them to be able to fall in love with (or hate, as the case may be) your characters so they think and talk about them as real people. You’ll hear people talk about characters in some of the most successful series as if they’re living, breathing people. Give them names they will want to hold close to their heart and tell other people about.

The Meaning Behind the Name

Whether or not you want to use names because of their particular meaning is something to consider. If you know your character, you could search for names based on a meaning. To give a really obvious example, if your main character is a marauder with a heart of gold, you might want to search for “brave” or “valiant” and see what comes up.

When choosing my main character’s name for my new novel, I narrowed it down to a few choices based merely on what I knew about my MC and what I wanted the name to portray. I looked up their meanings and one of them, Abby, meant “joy of the father.” In my novel, I knew my main character was going to have an extremely tense relationship with her father, who she can never seem to please. Done, decision made. I may have worked backwards with this process, but it worked for me. Nowhere in the novel will it ever be stated, “Abby means joy of the father,” but I’ll know.

Helpful Resources

I’ve found several useful websites for naming characters. The Social Security Administration website is a great resource where you can search for popular names based on the year of birth.

The website babynames.com has an article called Tips for Writers.

Behindthename.com is a great database you can use to search the etymology and history of first names. There’s also fun stuff like anagram names, theme names and names for twins.

Name-meanings.com is another great site where you can look up the meaning of names by origin or popularity. They even have popular pet names in case you’re having trouble naming your hero’s faithful dog in your novel.

I haven’t touched on fantasy, alien or bizarre sounding names yet. Most will caution you against picking anything with too many apostrophes, dashes or unpronounceable combination of letters. However, I’m sure we all know several successful novels that do just that. If you’re like me and enjoy playing around with names, the Behind the Name website has a random name generator I love. You can pick how many given names you’d like generated (from first and middle to first and three middle names), and whether you’d like it to be masculine, feminine or ambiguous. Then there are categories to choose from, everything from region to mythology and even witch names. If I’d like a female Russian Fairy name with a Classic Greek influence, I just click the correct boxes and like magic, my character’s name is (drum roll please) Sveta Nonna Yulia.

The fantasy name generator at ringworks.com is another great way to find different types of fantasy names. You can pick from a drop down list, for example, short names, insult names, mushy names and much more. It will then give you one hundred and nineteen options. I’ve tried refreshing it under the same selection and it will you give you a new list.

Good luck finding the perfect name for your characters and if you run into any shady cloaked figures in dark alleys asking for your name, politely tell them you’d prefer to keep it to yourself.

 

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  • Great post. I always hold off on names until the very end. Sometimes I’ll have a novel length manuscript that’s filled with characters with names like Person McGuy or RandomPartyPerson3. Then I go back and fill in the names.

    I love Behindthename.com. I also really like seventhsanctum.org. They have character name generators, and also other generators including: pirate ship name generators, evil being name generators, elf name generators. Squid.org also has lots of name generators that are broken down by category and geographical location.

  • Erika Holt

    This is really helpful, thank you!

  • L Tremblay

     This is such a great resource list! I didn’t know about ANY of these! I know, where have I been….Anyway, I also second R.S. Hunter’s recommendation of seventhsanctum.org
    Name generators are soooo fun! Thanks Sandra!

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  • Ben

    Spam email is a good repository for names.  Also, TV/Film credits once you get past the stars…the third location cameraman, etc.

    I find the hardest thing is having normal names.  If everyone has a bizarre/unusual name then it kinda distracts the readers mind from the story.  I know it does for me.