The Dos and Don’ts of Naming Characters
We’ve all struggled with it. Character naming. There’s nothing quite so tortuous as this monster (except perhaps book-titling, but that’s not what we’re talking about today). You want your character to have the perfect, original pre nomen to go with their perfect, original personality … but what is that?
Now, since this is obviously such a huge problem for you (if it’s not, just pretend it is) and because I’m a nice person (again, pretend), I’ve decided to compile a list of Dos and Don’ts for character naming.
Hopefully these tips will help you as much as researching and coming up with them helped me (because, honestly, I learn more from these posts than you do)!
When I pick a name for a character, I find that it’s rarely advisable to start with the name and then create the character. Especially when the name isn’t coming easily.
Sometimes names just fly through the clouds and hit you in the head … but when they don’t, you need to develop the character first.
So, the first step of naming a character is developing a character. Just brainstorm a couple things about the character.
If you want, you can create a placeholder name. This is just a random name – like Bob or Ann (without an “e”) – to call your character until you’ve gotten enough information to give him or him an actual name. Henrietta Selle from The Dressmaker’s Secret and Ivy Introspective was originally Jeanne, for instance.
So. Run off and develop your character. *shoos away*
Okay, you’re back, you have a semi-developed character, and you need the perfect name for it. What are some things you need to do (and don’t) when choosing said name? I’m glad you asked.
Do: Use a wide variety of names
Tom, Dick, and Harry are nice fellows, I’m sure, but mix it up a little!
Some of my characters from The Dressmaker’s Secret are Philip, Claire, Steven, Hazel, Lois, and Christina. Though not extremely different (I’m bound by historical accuracy, mmkay? I think I cheated a little with some of those, too), they’re not exactly what you’d call similar.
Don’t: Be an insane namer
Remember to be realistic. What are the chances of meeting a Trevnoid, Moncriet, or Venda? Not very high. Try to use names that at least have a feel of normalcy.
Then you also must remember …
Do: Use historically/culturally accurate names
If you’re writing a novel set in Regency-era England and have characters named Trevnoid, Moncriet, or Venda, people are going to give you weird looks. (Not that they wouldn’t give you weird looks, anyway.)
It’s a simple matter to Google ‘popular Regency-era names’ or ‘Regency name generator.’
Also, keep in mind that your characters were named when they were born, not when they are currently living. If the name Keilyla is mega popular in 2025 when your book is set, fine. However, your character probably isn’t an infant.
Then you’ve got to remember to be culturally accurate. Say you have a Hispanic (I think this is the preferred term?) young man named Liam McAllister. This will cause eye rolls. However, Angél Abrigo would be more believable. And it sounds cool.
For my Victorian series, I chose “Alice” and “Ivy” for the main characters. These are both realistic for the time of their birth, 1862, and the place of their birth, England.
Don’t: Use names that will cause the characters to be impossible to relate with
I’m sorry to say this, but Dorcas Flabbenbaumer isn’t going to get a fan club, even if her name is historically/culturally accurate. And if you must, go with a cute nickname – Dory might work. And … no, there’s nothing you can do to improve Flabbenbaumer. Change it unless you’re writing a comedy.
Like it or not, people will judge characters by their names.
Alice and Ivy are both relatively cute names, especially Ivy. Neither of them are ugly, and they both portray the image I want them to: Alice, strong and in control, and Ivy, the clinging vine.
Do: Make up exciting new names for your fantasy/science fiction novel
This is sad, but I read some fantasy books just ’cause the names are so cool.
Letters are fun to play with. You can come up with more than one cool pre nomen just by throwing them together at random. However, I do think it’s better to use names derived from something familiar.
I still need to justify Taevian from Caught in a Spell, though … I don’t know what that’s about …
Don’t: Use ridiculous/unpronounceable names
People go overboard with this a lot. Think of The Selection (which I just read in April). Some of the names are over-the-top whacky. They just remove a level of realism that would have been there if they had used slightly more, well, normal names.
In my fantasy novel, (some of) my characters are Millum, Jessamine, Wilhelm, Alici, Havinia, Mizree, and Taevian. All of them are pronounceable (except Alici … this is basically “Alice” with an “ee” sound at the end) and not too crazy (well …).
Do: Consider the parents of the character when choosing the name
What would the parents of your character name their child? Why? Does it have special significance to them? Are they the kind of people who would name their child a classical name or a more original one?
Remember: you didn’t name your character. Your character’s parents did.
My characters, Alice and Ivy, were named by their mother. She chose Alice because it had emotional significance to her (and it was a name she’d discussed with their father) and Ivy because it’s a symbol of faithfulness.
Don’t: Name all your characters after each other
In the Elsie Dinsmore books, everyone has their own name at first.
Until all the children start getting named after each other.
Learn a lesson from Elsie Dinsmore.
Really, though, you can occasionally name have a couple Alfred Edward Johnathon Zimbledorf Juniors running around … but make sure little Alfie doesn’t get mistaken for his father. Perhaps call him Edward or Johnathon instead.
In the future (at least in my novels; it’s really over a hundred years ago now), someone very dear to Alice names her daughter Eleanor Alice. She goes by Ellie, but the significance isn’t lost. A bit before that, a little girl is named Alice Rosaline, but goes by Rosa. (Alice is just one of those people you want to name your child after, I guess …)
Do: Give your character a name that is significant
… to the characters’ parents.
As is the case with Alice and Ivy’s names. A few of my other characters also have significant names, such as Gracelyn Love (she hasn’t shown up yet; be patient) and Madeline Faith (same as before).
Since I write historical fiction, most people didn’t have the internet to just look up the meaning of a name, however, so I mostly use virtue names if the parents want meaning.
However, it isn’t too far-fetched for parents to look up the meaning of a name in almost any era (there have always been certain names that are plainly derived from certain root words), so if you want the name of one of your characters to have special meaning, you can do that. Peter (a character from At Her Fingertips) means ‘a rock,’ and since it’s Biblical, it isn’t too hard to believe that his mother, knew the meaning.Don’t: Give your character a name that is eventually significant
For instance, your character’s name is Melody Williams, and she eventually grew up to be a famous singer. Unless her parents were singers, this makes no sense. How did they know? Answer: they didn’t. This was plainly orchestrated by a well-meaning author.
A Couple Other Things to Remember:
- Expectant mommies are your allies! Baby name websites are everywhere. Use them. And don’t mind all the weird looks you get from your friends and family.
- So are stereotypes. Never thought those would work in your favor, did you? Well, stereotypes really help authors because people make assumptions about people based on their names. Instant characterization.
- Or … you could go the opposite way. Surprise everyone with your serious Chelsea and your popular Gertrude.
- Play with spelling. For instance, in Once a Stratton, my main character’s name is Lilli. I tried out Lily, Lilly, and Lila. However, I decided to go with Lilli because it’s the German spelling (I think?). She might have spelled Lilli differently before she met Chris; I don’t know.
- If you choose the name of someone you know, don’t give them similar personality traits. If your character has faults (and all good characters do), then you’re gonna hurt someone’s feelings.
Well, those are my tips. (What do you mean, “Is that all?” That’s plenty!) And remember, folks: NEVER NAME YOUR CHILD TREVNOID! Or Agnes. (Though I don’t know; maybe Agnes will make a huge comeback someday. I can see that ….)
See ya Friday!
Do you struggle with coming up with great character names? What are some of your characters’ names and why? Which of the dos and don’ts do you think are important … and which do you think are unnecessary (if any)? Do you disagree with anything I said here today?
Oh my gosh, this was GREAT. Thanks so much for this, Kellyn! I’m the world’s worst character namer ever. I ended up accidentally giving one of my character’s the last name of the Japanese word for monosodium glutamate — and he’s in the 1680s. *cries* And then another character’s name literally means “You Spicy.” *smacks forehead* And then yet another person’s name literally means This Item Is Available For International SHipping. *wails*
Thank you very much for this. I NEEDED this. XD
Oh, and I spotted my name on the third pic from bottom. XD
Good grief! Sounds like you have bad luck with character names! I hope you’re able to find great ones now, though.
Oh, really? I didn’t notice. I love the name Madison, though. 🙂
*laughs* Sooo…. I have a character in my book named Hitler. I think it’s pretty historically accurate, too. I mean, major backstory there! I’m not sure my story would be the same without this guy . . .
*grins* Sorry. I saw that name, on the “no” list, and couldn’t resist. xD
On a more serious note…. I really enjoyed this post! Naming characters is always something I love. though, in all honesty, a number of my characters have names that I didn’t chose… I’m terrible at randomly whirling around in my chair, looking at whoever is sitting on the couch, and saying “Hey, give me a good guy’s name”. And normally they keep that name. ;P
So yeah, I really should take the name more into account when I’m writing. 😉
Thanks so much for the post!!
*laughs* Yeah, I think it’s forgivable in that case. I mean, that would change the book pretty drastically … 😉
I do that, too. I think half a dozen or so of my characters were named that way! I usually turn to my brother and say, “Boy name, NOW!” And then he either says a celebrity name or “Bob.” XD But after much cajoling, he eventually gives me something usable. 🙂
Omg this is just FANTASTIC. I’m currently brainstorming my new fantasy novel (aka MAGIC STORY CUZ I’M THE QUEEN OF TITLES) and it’s soooooo hard ti think of names. This will definitely come in handy!
Sometimes, I choose names because it’s ironic. Like a character is really bitter and cruel (MY BABY ALAIRAAAAAA) but her name means cheerful and happy. 🙂 But it wad also her parents’ wish for her to be that way. So yeah.
Finding the perfect names to fit the charrie is so haaaaaaard though! But these tips will definitely help — thanks so much, Kellyn!
Titles are hard … they’re a whole ‘nother ball game. If I knew anything about them, I’d write a blog post, but … I don’t. XD
Yessss, irony is fun to play with!
THIS WAS AWESOME. of course, i named my characters aspin and wither so….
OH NO I’M A RULE-BREAKER.
LOVE the baby images. Especially ‘baeby’.
Well, Aspin and Wither aren’t so bad. Wither is particularly interesting! And yes, ‘baeby’ cracked me up!
:p Poor kid. Walks in first day of school. “Hi, my name is baeby.”
Cue a lifetime of horrors.
I know, that’s so sad … he’d never survive! Maybe he could go by B or Bae …
His parents could homeschool him and then he could legally change his name.
Ooh, good point! Homeschool might save that child! We should look up Baeby’s parents and tell them … 😉
:p except then they’d think we were stalkers…. :p
AAAHHHH YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA HOW MUCH I CAN RELATE! This post was really helpful, I’m going to refer to this every time I have character trouble. Well, I’m pretty sure that time’ll come by VERY often. The main problem with my story is all the naming! I decided to name my main character Irys, but I haven’t even developed her character yet and I’m not sure I’m even going to stick with it. Thanks for this post, it was a HUGE help!
Irys is pretty and unique. And you never know … sometimes names help us develop characters! I’ve had that happen a couple times. I came up with the name ‘Gretchen’ for a character, and then kinda developed her from the name. It’s not something I’d do again, but in this case, it really worked.
I’m glad I could help! Thanks for reading. 🙂
That’s a cool idea! Thanks, Kellyn!
Ahahaaa!!! Studio C!! And Baeby! And Names!! This was really helpful!
I always have a tough time naming my characters, but not the first name. THE LAST NAMEEEEEE!! I sometimes don’t even put the last names in until the 3rd draft! Also, some of my characters have like, 4 middle names xD
May the 4th be with you!
I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Hmm … that is a problem! Try name generators or use random objects. 😉
Ooh. That’s a good idea. I did name a character Mason Stapler once, but it was three in the morning and I was high on coffee. . . . .
Mason Stapler isn’t too bad! And I had a Colin Clamstock at one point … and a John Cat. XD
Great post! I love naming my characters, but it can be hard sometimes, too. 🙂
It’s one of my favorite things, too. I have a little bit of a name obsession, to be honest … 😉
XD I have a HUGE obsession with names… 😉
Yay, I’m not alone! 😀
These are great tips! I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with names… 😉
No, you’re not! I’m definitely namely-challenged. 😉
Loved this! 😀
Great thoughts, Kellyn! I’m struggling to name one of my dystopian characters. Short, one or two syllable names seem to be popular with dystopian and YA, but I think some old-fashioned names would be unique, too. 😉
That’s true! You could do, I don’t know … Euphemia. That’s an old name no one hears much of nowadays. The nickname for it is ‘Effie,’ which I think is adorable.
Let me know if you ever want to brainstorm names. Like I said (I think?), I’m a name geek. XD
Ooh, great suggestions! And I’ll definitely take you up on that… XD
I like what you said about the virtue names… even for the internet era – not because modern day parents would never look up the meanings of names, but because most readers wouldn’t. I like it! 🙂
Yes, I agree. Honestly, no matter what a name means, the most important thing – if you want the character to have a meaningful name – is to choose a name that reflects their personality or whatever in a different way. For instance, you may see Jane as a little girl, a governess, or an author … but generally I’d think of Jane as a fairly proper, upright, ladylike person. And then you can either use the prejudice or irony. (I think this is … something I talked about already … but I keep thinking of different ways to say something as I chat in the comments!
Prejudice or irony – that’s a good way to put it. Either way, it’s making good use of communication methods. Strategic! 🙂
Well, sometimes you have to trick your readers … 😉
I love these tips! I didn’t need to think up many names, so as you suggested, I just pretended. (It wasn’t hard) Of course, I do have a popular Gertrude(I’m trying to make my sisters like that name because of her, but it’s difficult :P). Also, I’m not really a fan of any ‘name’ that I don’t think is a name. If you want to have weird names in your fantasy novel, just choose ones that are in the Bible. That’s what I say. 😉 I especially like the tip of thinking of parents when named children. Also, in historical fiction, parents didn’t usually name their children Jessica, John, and Julie. That same-first-letter theme is modern. I appreciated Alice and Ivy’s non-similar names, even though they were twins. 🙂
Well, a popular Gertrude makes sense in a historical era! 🙂
I’m guilty of doing the ‘all Js’ thing … only with C’s. But that’s because I have no imagination. 😉 But really, though, they were originally not twins, so … yeah. After that got changed because the plot demanded I either get rid of Ivy entirely or make her Alice’s twin, I didn’t change their names. Well, not a lot. It’s was originally Alicia and Evette … so I guess I did make some pretty big changes with Ivy’s name. 😛
How could they not be twins?? 😀 It does seem that they would have to be.
They would have to be with the current plot, but long ago, in the distant past, their parents were married (and always had been married) and they lived in France and had a completely unrelated adventure involving a river, a top hat, and a mischievous kitten. And then another adventure involving a stable boy. And another when they were older and of marrying age. But that was a long time ago … 😉
Oh, my… I see there has been quite a few plot changes… 😀 Somehow, I think you made it better.
I hope so! I do miss some of the old plots, though. 🙂
great tips! I like Jade as one of my characters names, because i can do some quirky nicknames which further her character with it.
Jezebelle is another favorite. Possibly all-time favorite.
Did you go through that phase where you gave your characters the weirdest names you could think of? I did. Poor characters i wrote at seven…
I love the name Jade! It’s so cool.
I did! I think I was ten. There was a Tanania and a Colti. Although those aren’t really bad, I guess … but yes, I did go through some weird naming stages, yes!
These are really helpful! Haha, I like changed the name for one of my characters six times. It was like Lorraine, then Annika, then Evangeline, then Autumn, the back to Lorraine and then Melody.
One of my characters would seriously not be named – I tried Adelaide, but decided to change it, so it went to Jael and then Abigail and then Joyce and then Joy and then Anabel, but I ended up going with Dahlia. At least, I hope I’ll stick with it. XD