A Character By Any Other Name . . .

By Jocelyn Nash Carlin

How do you name your characters?

Creating character names is a dilemma that all fiction authors encounter on a regular basis. We need to put labels on the personalities running rampant in our brains before we can corral them into printed words.

The importance of character names is different for every writer. Some authors need to find their character’s names before they can truly get to know them, while other authors will use generic placeholder names and develop the character independent of their true name, only christening them when the story is complete. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, eventually you will have to pick some names.

We are fortunate, in this technological age, to have vast name-listing resources available on the internet.

Baby name websites are a great resource. My two favorites are BabyNames.com, and BehindTheName.com. Both sites include multiple search criteria to help you narrow down your choices, and both include historical etymology, name meanings and language of origin information.

For fantasy or historical stories, I like to choose specific countries of origin for my names to help create a more authentic cultural milieu. In my new novel, I have characters from two different countries. I’ve chosen to model those countries after real historical regions, so I’ve picked one set of names with Norwegian origins, and the other set of names with Italian origins. This helps me to mentally distinguish my two cultures and to keep track of the differences between the characters.

For contemporary stories, you have even more options. But you still need to keep in mind things like your character’s ethnicity, social class, regional trends, the personality of their parents, etc. You might still want to look at name meanings or origins, or you just might want to find a name that “feels” right for your character.

You also need to make sure you have good variety in your character names. If your characters have names that are too similar, it can be confusing for your readers. (When I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time as a teen, it drove me crazy that nearly all the Bennet sisters were sometimes refered to as “Miss Bennet,” and that two men – who were cousins and friends – were named Fitzwilliam Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam. What? Don’t do that to your readers.) And try not to give your lead characters names that are difficult to pronounce, unless you plan on giving them a simpler nickname.

Here are a few other web resources that might be usual to you:

Genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com

This list of novelty name generators might give you some fun name ideas.

The Medieval Names Archive can be useful to writers of fantasy or historical fiction.

Now go have fun losing yourselves in name databases for hours and hours! I know I have.

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Information for the beginning or aspiring writer about all things writing in the fiction world. Novels, publishing, etc. We feature author and other professional interviews. View all posts by Writing Snippets

2 responses to “A Character By Any Other Name . . .

  • alice

    Great tips on naming characters. I love finding just the right name, but it can take a while so, as you mentioned above, I often give my characters generic names until I find the right one. I like looking at the meanings of names to help me find a name that fits, too. BTW, what’s the new novel you’re working on

  • M.L. Forman

    I have found names in all kinds of place, including taking the last names of authors from books on my bookshelf and forcing them together. I hear names in movies of characters that don’t mater and take them for my own, or sometimes I just make the name up that sounds right even if nobody has ever had that name before. Names are important, they are a part of your character so you need to think about them. Finally, please, please, please, do not give your main character very strange names that nobody but you can pronounce. When I read books that have characters with strange names I tend to just make up my own name for that character and carry on, never caring why the author gave them that terrible name.

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