Creating Character Names

What’s in a name? Contrary to what William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo & Juliet, a name can say a lot about you. Certain names have certain associations or ideas linked to them. A character’s name can excite, terrify, or bore a reader (can you imagine Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes sounding interesting if their names were Roger Wilkes or Hugh Liddell? I can’t). There’s a reason why parents obsess so much over a baby’s name. They know that, one way or another, the name they give their baby will have an effect on it. And as the parents of our characters, we authors go through a lot of work to decide on names for our characters.

Occasionally though, we end up stuck for a name. We can’t think of one, no matter how hard we try. And if it’s an important character, we can’t proceed until they have a name. So what do we do? I have some ideas on what to do in these situations:

1. Use a name dictionary. Plenty of bookstores carry books filled with the most popular baby names, as well as names you’ve never heard of and names you didn’t think could ever exist (ever hear of Grunka? Neither have I, but apparently it’s a girl’s name in Sweden). You can even find dictionaries for names that are sorted by region, by what years they were most in use, by sex, by culture, by just about anything you can think of. The possibilities are endless.

And if you need a striking last name, I’ve got just the thing: some universities have directories on their websites that allow students, faculty, and staff to find contact information much more easily (my wonderful Ohio State does, by the way). An unintended consequence of this is that it provides a great place for finding surnames for characters, especially since it’s a big school with students and teachers from every walk of life imaginable. Two characters from my upcoming novel Snake, Blake Harnist and Angela Murtz, got their family names right off of OSU’s directory. It’s also great for first names too (though I couldn’t find Grunka on there).

2. Look to history and literature. Ancient Greek history, the Bible, A Thousand and One Nights, the age of colonization, Chinese folktales, Elizabethan England, philosophers throughout the ages. Any one of these is a great source for a character name. You never know what interesting name you’ll find among them that could be just the perfect fit for a character. For example, one of the main characters from Snake, Allison Langland, got her last name from a contemporary of Shakespeare whom I read about in an English class back in 2012. The name fit everything I was looking for in Allison’s surname, and I ended up using it. And with these sources and so many more, there’s got to be some great names out there (just avoid using Oedipus if you can).

3. Look through a cemetery. As creepy as cemeteries can be, they make great places to find people’s names. JK Rowling said that she got the name of Gilderoy Lockhart partly from a gravestone. And you can find the most interesting names in a cemetery: Hamoud, Earps, Rosen, Kraczynski, MacBannon, Chang, Gupta, Owusu. And that’s just last names! Imagine what you can find with first names, especially in an age when some parents like to give their kids very unique names.

4. Name a character after someone you know or admire. The nicest thing an author can do for someone sometimes, besides dedicating a book to them or listing them in the acknowledgements section, is to name a character after them. It makes a great gift, and you can even model the character or make them a parody of the person being named. It can almost be like an inside joke between you two.

Just be careful whom you name your characters after: sometimes if you name a character after someone you know, they may feel entitled to tell you as the author what they think of “their character”. For example: “my character does what, exactly?” “My character would never say this or flirt with that sort of person!” “Why the heck is my character a ginger?”

5. Use a name you dislike. Granted, you hate the name and would at the very least hesitate before using it for a character. But in situations where the naming of a character is proving difficult, using a name you dislike might be worth it. For example, I dislike naming my characters Jack or John (no offense to anyone who is actually named Jack or John, it’s just that those names are used too much, so I tend not to use them). However if I was sutck on a name and I thought Jack or John might work with my character, I’d use it.

I would probably never use Bella though. Stephanie Meyer kind of ruined that name for me.

6. Derive a name from another language. In many languages, people’s names are the same or similar to words reflecting plants, animals, objects, events, or concepts. You could name a character after the Hebrew word for mystery (“Taloma”) or the Japanese word for island (“Shima”). You can also take names from dead languages or languages that aren’t used much anymore. What would be the Latin, ancient Egyptian, or Yiddish word for something you believe describes your character? You never know until you find out.

7. Just make up something new. I believe I said earlier that parents are starting to name their kids in very unique ways (“Apple”, “Brick”, “Bronx Mowgli”, and “Tripp” come first to my mind). You could make up something new and interesting for your character, especially in a fantasy or science fiction story. Use random syllables or sounds and see what comes together. I’m pretty sure that’s how they named most of the characters in Star Wars, anyway.

However you end up naming your characters though, it’s up to you to figure out what is the right name for them and yours alone. So remember to have fun with it and not get too worked up about it. If you dislike a character’s name after a while, you can always go back and change it if you want to. I’ve done that before, and I’m sure I’m not the first author to do so. Nor will I be the last, either.

Happy naming, everyone.

25 Comments

  1. I took my daughter’s high school graduation program and radomly mixed and matched different 1st and family names for one book.

    For my latest, I had two characters who’d been on Earth for over 400 years, so I researched names common back then.

    And some names just fit. Bart Sweeney is a bad guy. Steve Bond is a good guy. (both from another one of my books).

    And then there’s Dean Koontz. Donate to one of the charities he supports and he’ll use your name for one of the secondary characters.

    1. I didn’t know Koontz did that. I might have to try that.

  2. I wanted to have sort of an Irish name for my main male character in Fire Wizard, my current WIP. I liked Finn for the first name, but I couldn’t decide on a last name, so I Googled Irish names. 🙂

    I think it’s funny how sometimes I agonize over a character’s name, and sometimes it just comes to me immediately. Same thing with book titles.

    1. A lot of authors have that problem, including me. It took me little to no time at all to come up with a title and the names of characters for my novel Reborn City, but I really agonized on the titles and names for a couple of short stories I wrote a while back.

  3. Shay Fowler says:

    I was having a rough time getting people to volunteer as betas. I finally told my friends and family that, anyone who read and critiqued my book would get a character named after them. They told their friends and I am now telling people “no thank you! I have enough readers.” I’ve been swamped!

    1. Ha! That’s wonderful for you. I doubt that’d work for my family though. Knowing them, they’d be so worried about getting their heads chopped off or something they’d ask me not to say anything.

  4. southerndreamer says:

    I use name dictionaries and pick names whose meanings reflect something about the character. Sure, the readers won’t care, but it gives me that foothold into the character’s psyche. An author I know who often writes horror asks her friends who wants to be the next victim. 😀 She never has a shortage of names.

    1. I like both methods you listed above. Though if I used the latter, I’m pretty sure nobody would want to answer.

      1. southerndreamer says:

        LOL.
        For my alien characters, I have been known to randomly hit the keyboard and then tweak the result into something vaguely pronounceable.

        1. A writer after George Lucas’s heart.

          1. southerndreamer says:

            HAHA!

  5. Spam is a good source for Sci-Fi names. I have a spam blocker and go through it once in awhile. Mixing and matching the names from the addresses.

    1. I’ll have to try that the next time I’m creating names for a sci-fi story. Thanks!

  6. I was musing with a fellow writer and friend last night about a character who could be a villain, spending much of her life hiding a name she hates, such as Peaches, Cuddles, Thumper, or Bunny.

    1. I’d hate those names too. They suggest that she’s either a stripper or she’s related to one.

  7. Great post! If I want a name I can actually trace to a culture I use online baby name sites but otherwise I either make them up or else steal them from people hubby used to work with.

    1. What happens if those people find out their names have been used?

      1. He doesn’t work with any of them now and even if he did it’s only first names (I rarely need surnames) so how can they prove I “stole” it from them? Lol! I have had people volunteer their names but never use them for the reasons you mentioned though it did turn out one of my major villains had the same name as my cousin – honestly didn’t think about it until waaaaay later when his wife read the book ha ha!

        1. That’s hilarious. Now here’s my next question: your cousin’s wife reads your books? How did you get her to do that? It’s a challenge getting my folks to read my own books!

  8. Reblogged this on WANDA S. PARYLA and commented:
    Good advise.

  9. Great post with good ideas. Thanks for sharing. I re-blogged!

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you liked them.

  10. I did go through a cemetery when I ran out of ideas for late 1800s names. It’s amazing how many names I missed.

    I have used the dictionary method, especially with the fantasies when I was trying to come up with the names of alien species. The name helps me say something about who they are at a glance.

    I have used middle names and a version of names for people I have known. One was a character named John who was mute. I named him after my son who is deaf. I chose the name because he had a special need like the character did. In another instance, I used the names of my uncles on my dad’s side for the four kids in the story. Little stuff like that has more sentimental value to me than it ever will for the people reading the books. 🙂

    1. I like that last one very much. However I could never use the names of my family members. I’d never hear the end of it!

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