What to name your fictional character
One of the problems (and there are many) a writer faces is what to name your fictional character. A small minority (I don’t know of any) pick a random name and go with it. Others agonize, change, switch and procrastinate until they find the perfect name.
Personally, I don’t think there is a perfect name. Are you happy with your name? Most of us aren’t, yet I’ll bet our parents discussed it more than once. You, like most of us, grew into your name. I can’t imagine my life as a Bobbi Jo, one of the names my mother picked, but I’m comfortable as a Cheryl.
The best thing we can do is find a name that we’re comfortable with, that fits the genre, setting, historical content of the story and defines how the character looks, talks, and acts. Not hard, right?
What a character name should do
- Fit the genre. If you’re writing a contemporary YA, why is your character’s name Milton? Does the aberration tie in with the story? If it does, have the reason part of his back story. Is your fantasy dragon named Mason or Mia? Why?
- Does it fit the setting? If you’re writing a Scottish Highlands romance, does your character have a Scottish or English name? Why is your Victorian sleuth named Ashlee?
- Fit the historical content. I’m drafting a series of short stories set in a retirement community. It stands to reason my characters will have names popular in the ’50’s, 40’s and beyond. In the WWII story I just finished, I dove into names popular in the 1910’s and 1920’s.
- Defines how the character looks and talks and acts. Is she a Trixie? A Vinnie? A Dominique or Reginald? There is power and meaning in a name, and careful selection sets up preconceived prejudices in your reader. Why describe a Sergio or Tonya when we already know the basics?
- A name should be consistent throughout the book. If she’s Lizzie in the beginning, why is she Lisa in chapters 2 and 3, and Lizabeth in chapter 7?
What a character name shouldn’t do
- What to name your fictional character? Not Mike if you have a Mark and Mick as other characters. Make their names distinctive. Don’t confuse the reader.
- The name shouldn’t rhyme with another character’s name. I made that mistake in my WWII book. The main character is Annie. Her brother is Danny. I didn’t notice until more than halfway through the first draft. Uh-oh.
- Fun fact. A find and replace can cause other problems. Because I called Danny by Dan in some cases, when I replaced Dan with Don, I found strange words like donger and dongerous. Oops again.
- Too exotic names or too hero-ish. Apollo “Iron Chest” Chronis? Douston Battleshoulder? Really?
- The same name as the last three book you’ve written (I have a Jimmy, James, and Jim in my last three books. Bad me. Don’t be like me).
- Unpronounceable. No Ja’h’inei or Kgnei’for. You want names your readers can relate to and not struggle with.
What to name your fictional character
Where do you find names?
- Keep a list. Every time I read an interesting name, I add it to my name.doc. Someday, I’ll have use for a woman named Comfort or a man named Printer.
- Baby name sites
- Family and friends
- Phone books – I don’t know a soul who uses one in this digital age, but they still show up on our doorstep every January.
- Name generators (see below)
- News stories. When I’m in a hurry for a name, I’ll turn to Yahoo stories.
- If you use it, Scrivener has a name generator.
- Take two common names, split them apart and mash parts of them together like their fans do to celebrities (Kimye)
Here are several I’ve used:
Social security list. Give lists of the most popular names by decade from 1880 onward.
Also gives personality traits, Myers-Briggs archetype, psychological disorder, career path. Can select nationality & decade of birth
Fantasy name generator, from Aliens to Zombies and any species in-between:
Also included: plot ideas, plot twists, writing exercises, location generator, character profiles, first line generator.
Includes name themes
Other things to consider while deciding what to name your fictional character:
- Google the name you’ve chosen to make sure you’re not naming them after a politician, porn star, etc. (Or a politician’s porn star)
- What is the meaning and origin of the name? Does it have significance to the character? To his parents/culture/heritage?
- Did your character change her name in the story? Does she go by her middle name because she hates her first name? This is a great opportunity to give some character background.
- It’s okay to change your mind about your character’s name. The original name might not fit. Just don’t use the excuse of searching for and settling on the right name to avoid writing. Tsk-tsk.
Whatever name you decide to use for your characters, I hope they resonate with your readers, resulting in many sales of your books.