Why do we find naming characters so hard? Sometimes, names will come to you immediately and that character could never be called anything else. But so often, we agonise over finding the perfect name. This guide will show you how to come up with names for characters, explain why naming characters is important, and provide examples of effective character names.
Why Is Naming Characters Important?
What’s in a name?Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet fame) would have you believe a name is meaningless. That is her hope. Except for her, the name is the insurmountable wall that stands between her and her one true love. So a name, evidently, has much meaning.
And naming characters is important. A name should embody your character. It should tell us so much about who they are. It is an element of your story that could propel it to stardom. Unforgettable characters should have unforgettable names.
A name should tell your readers so much – place, time, personality – even if the story you are telling is quiet, contemporary and real-world. It should also speak to the genre you are writing and ground your readers in the fictional world you have created. I will break down some of the key elements you should consider when naming characters.
Great Character Names: The Key Components
From uniqueness to contextual accuracy, here are some things to consider when coming up with character names.
The World We Live In
When we think about novels that are showing us our own world, we want characters that we feel we know or could walk past on the street.
For novels such as One Day by David Nicholls, we must relate to the characters in order to be willing to follow them through twenty years of their lives. We all know Emma (or a version of her). Maybe not so much Dexter – but that makes sense because he is from a different ‘class’. He moves in different circles. His name is as important as hers. It shows the divide between them, but as the reader, all you care about is them managing to cross that divide.
Contemporary novels, be it literary, thriller, or romance, all have one thing in common. We know these names and we could know these characters. Sally Rooney did it with Normal People. Marianne and Connell, such beautiful Irish names of characters that could live up your street. Kiley Reid with Such a Fun Age had Emira and Alix. The novel deals with themes of race and privilege, and Alix’s name is a stroke of genius. The character changed a letter in her name to go from Alex (far too normal) to Alix (much edgier). This is a character who cares so much about her image and how she is seen that she changes her name. It’s a genius character name, as I said. And Blythe, her husband Fox, and daughter Violet in The Push by Ashley Audrain are about as middle-class as you can get. This tells the reader so much before they have even turned the first page.
Don’t be scared to use everyday names. If that is the world, then that is the right name.
Catchy And Unique
Do you want your characters to jump off the page? Naming characters in a quirky way will definitely help you get there.
Let’s take the wonderful Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Would you have cared quite so much if Sarah Smith had been completely fine? Apologies to all Sarah Smiths of the world – it is a great, strong name and I descend from a Smith myself – but it doesn’t tickle the ears or play on the tongue quite so nicely as Eleanor Oliphant. Before even opening that first page, you conjure an image of Eleanor. She stands out. You want to know everything about her.
Charles Dickens was the king of this technique, especially with creative last names. You will never forget great character names such as Martin Chuzzlewit, Uriah Heep and Ebenezer Scrooge.
The same goes for nicknames. So many characters will only ever be known by their nicknames. Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird, Boo Radley from the same novel, Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, Piggy from Lord of the Flies. All are completely memorable characters and their nicknames help us remember them.
And let’s not forget Pippi Longstocking! Children’s literature is full of amazing, stand-out names. So, if you want your characters to stand out from the rest, go for a name that is catchy or even completely made up.
Of The Time
Historical fiction calls for names that fit the period. It would be no use throwing a character named Jaiden into an 1870s Victorian cosy mystery. And some great character names have come from historical fiction.
The wonderful Fingersmith by Sarah Waters has Sue Trinder (a petty thief), Maud Lilly (a gentlewoman), and Gentleman. Anyone called Gentleman is likely to be anything but.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton has names of both time and place. Set in 1686 in Amsterdam, Nella Oortman marries Johannes Brandt. Both names are very much of the time.
I think this is one genre where research is key. You won’t get away with using names from the wrong period. Readers are savvy, they will pick up on it. Get it right and you’ll gain credibility.
Of The Place
Place is a strange one. Of course, if your novel is set somewhere very specific such as the cold climates of Scandinavia or amid the colours and heat of Nigeria, then great character names will fit with these places. But place is also closely linked with time, so you should think about both hand in hand. And this is where you can use cultural inspirations, too.
In my current WIP, I have a character named Tara. The novel is set in Appalachia in South Carolina, just across the border from Georgia, incidentally where Gone With the Wind was set. Tara was named after the plantation in the novel and movie and she is so proud of this, she has posters from the movie hanging from her bedroom wall. But her sister, Grace, states that she is “sure Mama has never even watched the movie, let alone read the book.” Tara’s name is of the place, yet it also reveals so much about the family. They are happy to use cultural references without knowing anything about them, so appearances clearly matter to them.
There is a brilliant book called A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley. It is set amid the Civil Rights Movement in America. The character that the story centres around is Tucker Caliban – is that not a character you know will achieve something in his life? He is a black farmer that kills his cattle, burns down his farm and sets in motion a mass exodus of all the black people from the town who reject their life of servitude and head for freedom. The other character names are perfect too – The African, Mister Leland, Dymphna Willson, Bethrah, Dewey Willson III. The state is fictional but everything about these names tells us it’s the Deep South.
For me, this is one of the most important elements of naming characters. Show me where I am without telling me where I am. Anything that doesn’t belong will stick out to your readers.
Weird Names For Weird Characters
Naming characters in gothic, weird or uncanny fiction can be a lot of fun. Writers need to show readers that this world is not quite the same as ours, so you can have fun coming up with great character names that fit your odd world where unlikely things happen.
One of my favourite books of all time is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The narrator is eighteen-year-old Merricat Blackwood. Merricat is an affectionate nickname. But Merricat is anything but lovely. She is malignant. The name of her sister is also clever – Constance is the faithful, dependable and unchanging sister, even knowing what she knows about Merricat. I, for one, have never forgotten the name Merricat. It is as creepy as the character herself.
The same goes for Lucy McKnight Hardy’s Water Shall Refuse Them. Her main characters are called Nif and Mally. I don’t know anybody called Nif or Mally. They are totally unique and otherworldly, just like their macabre story is otherworldly.
Dystopian fiction fits this category, too. Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, for example, is a unique name for a unique world. Or in the opposite way, Winston Smith from George Orwell’s 1984. This is where the name Smith works so well. He is the ‘everyman’, yet he is living in a world filled with nuclear war, propaganda and the ‘thought police’. Quite unbelievable, yet totally (and scarily) real.
Here is where you can use your imagination – and the same goes for other genres, too – so get creative!
Roots That Go Deep
If you want to stamp your novel in place and time with families that have been there for generations, the key is to come up with good last names for characters. Think about Downton Abbey, for example. The Crawley family are front and centre. They have a heritage that makes viewers care deeply about their future and the changes that occur. Jeffrey Archer achieved the same with his Clifton Chronicles. The surname has roots, giving the characters roots and an automatic history.
Or look at Titanic. Rose and Jack. DeWitt-Bukater and Dawson. Instantly, we know that Rose is from a wealthy family, she is a society girl. Jack is a poor person. They even laugh that he will need her to write her name down. The divide is clear just from their names. And there is an expectation that Rose will marry up. It is the way of things in her world. Jack challenges what has been the norm in her family and her society for generations.
This is where good last names for characters can really help you show the backstory of your characters.
How To Name A Character
So, now you know just how important character names are. But how do you come up with an effective character name? Here are our tips.
- Read widely in your genre. See how other writers name their characters.
- Read articles and non-fiction about the time period and place your novel is set.
- Look at Census records for when your novel is set.
- Seek out the root meanings of names.
Read Baby Name Books
- You can Google baby names and search by year for the most popular.
- Or keep a stash of baby name books to hand for when you don’t want to spend forever choosing a great character name.
Online Name Generators
Online name generators are a great resource, and there are tons of them available on the internet. Here are a couple to get you going:
Draw From Real Life
- You could combine names of people that you have come across throughout your life.
- Did you have a sentimental teddy or toy as a child? That could make a great character name.
- Pay homage to famous figures without using their full name.
- Teachers or other personalities from your school days always have an emotional draw (good or bad) for people. Who stands out for you? Who do you remember well?
What To Avoid When Naming Characters
- I wouldn’t recommend using names of people you know personally, especially family. This might come back to bite you.
- Using full names of famous people can be risky because your readers will always conjure an image of them in their mind.
- Borrowing names from other books – try to be original.
Creating Character Names
While you should think carefully about your character names, don’t spend too long agonising over them. Think about what you want a character’s name to say about them, whether it be personality, image, where they live, the roots they have, or the period in which they live. If the story allows it, be wild. If the story calls for it, be ordinary. But also know that, although a name isn’t just a name, as shown above, it also is just a name. If you want more advice on writing character names, check out our Jericho Writers YouTube video on the same topic.
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