How To Come Up With A Character Name: an Author's Guide
Before you’ve even started your novel, you’re in danger of stalling on one crucial detail: how to come up with a character name.
Will you choose a short, blunt name, like James Bond? A memorable one, like Holden Caulfield? Will you go with self awareness, like Artful Dodger, or absurdism, like Ignatius Reilly? Or, perhaps, will you pick no name at all?
Coming up with character names shouldn’t be impossible, but it is important. To help you navigate this all-important choice, we drummed up 12 steps. But first, let's unpack why you might not want to simply pick a name out of a hat.
- Why do names matter?
- How to come up with a character name
- How to test your character name
Why do names matter?
Think of any character from any book. Got one? We're willing to bet they aren’t named “John.”
For a name to stick in the reader’s head, it should be as thoughtful as every other aspect of your novel. Character names are to characters as titles are to books, so if you’re blindly putting finger to phone book when picking one, you’re doing it wrong.
Fortunately, it’s not too hard to do right. In reality, a character name has just a few things to establish:
- Clarity: Helps the reader differentiate between the major players.
- Character: Reveals personality without needing to say more than a word.
- Bankability: The right name can make your character iconic.
As for how to choose a character name yourself, that’s a whole other question — one we’ll take a crack at answering next.
How to come up with a character name
You deserve more than common sense advice that you could come up with yourself: only give names to important characters, for instance, or avoid common names. These are 12 top shelf tricks to mastering the art of naming a character.
1. Does the name fit the character?
James Gatz or Jay Gatsby? The first sounds as ordinary as his destitute upbringing, the second sounds as fabulous as the glittering mansions of West Egg.
To put it another way, you don’t name a dude who eats people Hannibal by accident. The connotations, sounds, and even the letters of a name can be used to offer insight into personality and characteristics. Or they can be used ironically to do the opposite, like Toni Morrison’s disruptive antagonist, Sula Peace.
Speaking of names and connotations…
2. Pay attention to the length of the name.
Very short names works for some, like the peppy Pip. Very long works, too, like the useless bureaucrat Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky. Can you see how even just the length of a name implies certain characteristics?
(If you want to add some color, look to hyphenated last names, abbreviations, or prefixes and suffixes as well.)
3. Experiment with the sound.
You know how some names just look better than others? This has to do with the use of literary devices like repetition, onomatopoeia, and alliteration.
Humbert Humbert is a step up from Hubert — the repetition and consonants pop on the page, and the use of letters evokes associations with the reader. In other words: Severus Snape sounds severe. Bilbo Baggins sounds billowy, baggy, frumpy. Humbert sounds like a middle-aged professor. Humbert Humbert sounds like a scummy one.
4. Experiment with nicknames.
Switching between a real name and nickname can confuse the reader. But it can also add context about characters and their relationships with others.
For instance, Huckleberry Finn is “Huck” for the novel's entirety. The only character who uses his full name is the strict Miss Watson.
The prevalent use of this nickname signals his reluctance to grow up or become "sivilized." Miss Watson's use of his full name nods to her desire to civilize.
5. Research the root meaning.
If you do decide on a real name, dig up its roots first. Darth Vader isn’t revealed to be Luke’s corrupted father until the second Star Wars, but a diligent viewer could predict the twist off his name alone — roughly translated from Dutch, it means “dark father.”
Readers are smart, and they will catch you in a gaffe. Don’t be that guy who names a Japanese character Ming. And if your cowardly character’s name means “lion,” someone’s gonna notice. Of course, any contradiction can work as long as it’s intentionally ironic.
6. Does the name fit the story you’re telling?
Katniss Everdeen is a perfect name for The Hunger Games, but it would sound out of place in War & Peace. To avoid this, here are a couple questions to keep in mind.
What is the genre?
There’s a reason George R.R. Martin didn’t name anyone Bob. Instead, he modified ordinary English names for his Game of Thrones characters, since the high fantasy epic is modeled off the War of the Roses.
Where does it take place?
It’s hard to put your finger on why Patrick Bateman sounds like a real American Psycho, while Patrick Melrose sounds like a troubled English gentleman. Maybe it has something to do with the Anglo Saxon root “Mailros” — or Bret Eaton Ellis’s homage to the original American Psycho, Norman Bates.
When does it take place?
If it’s not the 19th century, please no Lenores. Ellen Ripley would sound out of place in the Antebellum South. Scarlett O’Hara would sound out of place anywhere that’s not the Antebellum South.
It’s fine, however, if it is a purposeful anachronism — pop culture that appears in periods of time other than its own, bringing style to both sci fi and period pieces.
7. Think outside the box.
That doesn’t mean use a lot of Q’s and Z’s. A name can be meta, like Hiro Protagonist, or ironic, like Master Bates. It can be algebraic, like A, B, and C, the main characters of You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine. It can even be the author’s own name, like Martin Amis in Money… by Martin Amis.
Or, you could add some mystique and not bother to give them a name at all (think Whiskey Priest in The Power and the Glory). You’re no longer excused for naming her Mary Sue.
8. Is a theme appropriate?
You can even fashion character names from a theme, if it fits. To match the monochromatic title, Fifty Shades of Grey has characters named Grey and Steele. This gives the book a sort of visual aesthetic — crucial, since novels don’t have the help of visuals.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss, Primrose, and Rue are all named for flowers, too, which foreshadows a visual motif throughout the series.
9. Use your resources.
Writer’s block is rough. While sketching original character names is important, you shouldn’t feel bad for drawing a blank. There are plenty of resources out there — books, encyclopedias, online name databases — that do the work for you.
To rattle off a few:
- An encyclopedia,
- The phone book,
- A baby name book,
- An online name translator,
- The SSA popular name database,
- The Fantasy Name Generator,
- Instant Domain Search,
- Even an Anagram Generator… remember, Tom Marvolo Riddle is an anagram of “I am Lord Voldemort.”
10. Draw inspiration from everyday life
Choosing a famous name isn’t recommendable… unless you’re Dakota Fanning (nope, no relation) in Richard Yates. But you could combine the names of famous people to create a new one if you’re really blocked up (and sneaky — please, no Marilyn Mansons). Or, be more personal and combine the names of two treasured things, like your hometown and childhood stuffie.
You can even borrow from friends or family, so long as they’re okay with it. (Trust me, you don’t want to answer that call from Mom.) Just remember to run a Google search before you settle on anything. You don’t want to fall in love with a name that’s already taken by someone else.
11. Say it out loud.
Once you’ve got it, sit back, relax, take a sip of water, and then say it. Does it sound good? Easy to remember? Easy to pronounce? Does it sound exactly the same as every other name in the book? These are things your reader will notice, so you should, too.
You don’t want to run into another Hermione situation. Who else out there pronounced it “Her-mee-own” until well into the fifth book?
12. Choose a name and stick with it.
This doesn’t mean you have to commit before you start writing — we’re all proud users of the find and replace function. But if you’re calling him Jimbo in Chapter 1, better call him Jimbo in the epilogue, too.
Remember, even with nicknames, consistency is key. You don’t think of Harry Angstrom, or Jean Louise Finch. You think of Rabbit and Scout. That’s because the best authors tend to stick with one name through to the end… so you should, too.
How to test your character name
By now, you may have come up with a character name, but you aren’t finished. Look at any words on a page for long enough and they’ll look good — this is how you’ll know for sure.
What’s in a name?
That’s an ancient and loaded question, so if you’re still wondering about your character name, here are a few to ask yourself instead:
- Is it realistic?
- Is it clear?
- Is it original?
- Is it too original?
- Is it intentional?
We'll look at the character who famously begged, "What's in a name?" to see how his own name measures up.
Hamlet: derived from a 13th century book of Danish history, it’s realistic to the era and setting.
It’s clear — short and easy to remember, but also distinct from other names in the story.
It’s original, yes — this isn’t King John — but not too original to pronounce.
And, above all else (in keeping with the theme), it intentionally tells something about the story and the character. The name’s root means “fool” — indicative of the hapless prince’s behavior throughout the tragedy.
Give your name a test drive
Once you’re finished reading this post, write out a list of names with nothing else — no age, no profession, no comprehensive family genealogy, nothing. Then, present them to a friend and ask the following questions:
- How do you pronounce this?
- Who do you picture in your head?
- Would you imagine them good or bad?
- What do you think they do for a living?
- Where (and when) do you think they live?
- Does it remind you of anyone?
If it rolls off their tongue and they picture the same type of person you do, you’ve done splendidly.
Don’t let choosing a character name stop you before you start. It’s too easy to procrastinate by perfecting the tiniest detail, but you’ve always got find and replace. In truth, it’s probably better to reevaluate the name as you write, ensuring that it fits the character at the beginning and the end.
As long as you treat it with care, a character name can do marvelous things for your novel, protagonist, and your reader. So, please, no more Jake Barnes — unless your last name is Hemingway.
Did you come up with any character names you're particularly proud of? Show them off in the comment box below!