Writing Discussion

Naming Characters

How do you decide on character names?

It always takes me forever to find the right name. Sometimes I can search for weeks, and I can’t stop until I find the name that fits. With the last novel I was renaming characters even up to the last draft and I suspect I’ll have to rename a couple more in the next pass. Sometimes it’s the sound of the name that I like, other times its the meaning, but usually it’s a combination of both.

I try to avoid names that belong to family/friends unless it’s intentional. I also usually sometimes do a search of main characters names to see if I’m using a name that happens to belong to someone famous, which is ok. I’ll also try to avoid too many names with the same first letter to avoid confusion.

If I am looking for a name from a specific culture, I will do a search to see if a first/last name combination is plausible, as some surnames may be tied to only a certain region in a country, or combined have a different meaning than one name alone. If find a long list of people with the same name combination, it will likely be fine.

Some great places to find names beyond baby names websites? The closing credits of movies are a gold mine! The crew is a great place to find names (not just actors). Foreign movies, and international sports teams are also lists I search.

Do you have a method to your madness? How do you pick character names? Do you have any name resources you want to share?

And Happy Canada Day to my Canadian friends! Today’s a day typically marked by backyard BBQ’s and beer. Around here, the highways and ferries are busy as Canadians head out of the city to do some long weekend camping, or head south to the US for cross border shopping.

I think that to celebrate I’m just going to chill, do some writing, and maybe some napping. 😀

26 Comments

  1. This is an awesome topic that I happened to be writing about when this was posted. For me, friends and acquaintances are fair game for influencing names and characterization, at least in part. Outside of that are names I like the sound/meaning of, sometimes from baby name books based on a character’s background. Korean was hard for me to wrap my head around, but I think I got it eventually.

    I always read credits, but it never occurred to me to use them in any capacity. I keep a spreadsheet of all my characters for a given project and try to avoid similar or like-sounding names unless the tie is somehow relevant. Writing fantasy, I get to use a lot of mythological, religious or historical names that are sometimes obscure. It’s also fun to just make them up sometimes.

    Once a name is good and settled upon, I’ll Google it or check Facebook just for kicks. So very sorry about the length of this comment–I got excited. Happy Canada Day!

    1. Ahh, what a coincidence! I’ll have to check out your post on names too.

      Good point on avoiding similar sounding names too. As a reader, I find that can be just as confusing as too many characters with the same first letter. No worries about the length, we’re mostly long winded around these here parts 😉

      Thanks Michael!

  2. Better even than closing credits of movies is imdb.com. It’s like closing credits for all the movies all at once. 🙂

    It’s also good to avoid too many gender-neutral names. I made that mistake in my first novel (Sam, Terry, Nicky, Alex) and some people got confused. Not that you can’t have any, of course, but now I’m aware of the possible problem so I try to make it clearer.

    1. Hehe yes IMDB’s a quick way to do it! Sometimes I’ll spy a name I want in the credits while watching a TV show, and forget it, then end up searching IMDB to find it again. I also start there sometimes.

      I’ve never considered gender neutral names as a problem before, but I can see how that could be confusing for a reader. Thanks for pointing this out 🙂

  3. Credits! That’s an interesting place to get names from. There’s sure to be a huge variety from different cultures, too. Sounds like you’re going to have a pretty chill day, as well. 🙂

    Since I’m writing about a secondary world, I pretty much just go by the general “sound” that I want my names to have and how they make me feel. It’s a largely instinctual process, initially. Usually I’ll make up names or pick one of the first that come to me and grow the character from there (and often I’ll find that even the ones I “made up” actually exist).

    I can recall changing only one of my character’s names, and that was after writing about five or so different versions of him, lol. (I swear, he has been by far my most difficult character to pin down.) At first I named him Ron(ny) Fielding, but combined with his first name the surname sounded way too cavalier and English for how I’d come to imagine him. I changed his surname to Callahan because I thought it had a more authoritative, grittier edge to it (like an American police officer’s or serviceman’s name), which suits his position as an intelligence officer better. (And since I use his surname more often than his first name, it was really important that I settle on a strong one or else it would sound pretty stupid to be using it all the time, lol.)

    Typically I’ll look up all sorts of info on the names I pick, too, just to see if they have any hidden meanings that somehow line up with my visions for characters. For example, I randomly chose the name Milia for a particularly strong-willed diplomat who is very dedicated to her work; when I looked up the etymology I learned Milia was actually a German name meaning “industrious”—a perfect description for her character. (And Ronny’s name means “strong counsel,” which is funny because he provides constant counsel to my heroine throughout the story, and she often finds herself deferring to his opinion.)

    Sometimes I just get lucky like that!

    I also think it’s fun to look up numerological meanings for character names and also the compatibility between them. It’s always interesting to see what comes up and gives me an opportunity to “test drive” the names, in a way, on the field of character interactions. (And if I don’t like it, I can change either the name or some trait of the character(s) in mind.)

    I guess I put a lot more thought into it than I first realized, lol!

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      “often I’ll find that even the ones I “made up” actually exist” Yeah that happens to me too! There are a couple of occasions I’ve made up a name, and looked it up, and found its a name only appropriate for the opposite gender in a certain culture. hehe oops?

      Numerology! Ahh I’ve never gone that far, though I will pair a couple of characters together and see if their names sound good together if they’re going to be a couple of any sort. It’s like playing matchmaker hehe.

  4. My “process” sounds pretty similar to yours. I would say that, for the most part, I go with the first name that comes into my head for a character. Especially for the main players, it seems to happen fairly naturally.

    But things can change depending on what I learn (names that are too popular in fiction already, or too hard to pronounce, etc.) or how the story evolves (ex: I had sisters with similar names, but then I took one sister out of existence, so the other sister got her name). Or sometimes I just hear a new name and it sounds more right.

    One thing someone mentioned that I try to keep in mind is that in fiction, we expect names to reveal something about a character, but in reality, names say more about parents, since they’re the ones who pick them. 😛

  5. Character names can be hard, it’s like naming lots and lots of babies. Like you I try and stay away from names of people I know (even first names) just in case either they see the character as a reflection on them or I start slipping them into the character. I have a bit of a habit for surnames of using nouns or combinations of nouns.

    1. That way of going about surnames would definitely work in certain worlds. It is a lot like naming babies. You want to get it just so… and hope the kids don’t hate you for it, or get teased about it when they grow up. LOL

  6. I have three characters, two brothers and a sister, and their parents were very religious, so their names had to be the sorts of names that religious parents would have chosen (I went with Samuel, David, and Sarah).

  7. My favorite character names simply pop into place. One time I opened a new text file and wrote every combination of syllables I could, and the twenty-first came out immaculate and irreplaceable. Another time, I was watching a Scrubs marathon and one of the characters said a piece of slang I’d never heard that popped just as perfectly for a new creation of mine. Still another time I had a gag name that so many people hated that it stuck with me, and three years later I began work on a novel, wondered what to name my ninja, and ba’am, there it was. It takes all inspirations. Typically, though, a character name will emerge as the character forms. The only constant is how darned hard it is to change them, if it’s even possible.

  8. You may happen to know about my somewhat coincidental posting on Sunday that touched on this subject somewhat. (I’d written that post up by early Friday, before this was posted, and I was on the road for my own holiday by the time your post went live…)

    So… I was going to respond with some stories about character names in my stories… and then I realized that I was going very long on the windy side, and decided, hey, what-the-heck, wouldn’t this make a fine post for my own blog. So, I’ll be posting something there either today or tomorrow on the topic of names. Thanks! 🙂

    Also, I hope you had a happy Canada Day. 😀

  9. I’m rather cavalier in my naming and once I name someone it sticks. Which may be a bad thing and leave me vulnerable to more name changing down the road.

    In addition to the sources you list above, I also use lists of famous people for a particular area (encyclopedia’s can be helpful for providing these lists). The advantage of these lists is to help provide sets of names that match a particular region and time period.

      1. Yes. It’s depressing how often if you try to find collaborating (*) articles to justify wikipedia, you find verbatim copies all over the place that copied the wikipedia information. As a result, I have some research that I’m willing to use Wikipedia (usually doesn’t have to be right) but if I have to be right, I won’t use wikipedia.

        (*) I don’t think this is the right word, but I think you’ll know what I mean.

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