11 Tips on Naming Your Characters
If you came here because you’re struggling with naming your characters, you’re not alone! Many writers struggle with finding the “right names.” I say “right” because, while there’s no such thing as a perfect name, a name is part of what shapes your character’s identity.
The importance of names in shaping characters shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve found that people are drawn to the sound of their own name to the point that it can sometimes influence their career (the famous “Dennis/Dentist” study tells us more). External perceptions (including those of your readers) are influenced by a person’s name in direct ways; numerous studies have found that some names are perceived as more attractive and powerful, while others are associated with less positive characteristics.
This article explores the importance of names and provides 11 tips on picking the right one.
The Name’s Bondstein. Willie Bondstein.
A skit by the comedy troupe KWAT gives a Woody Allen rendition of a James Bond scene. Bond rambles on about his conflicting motives, his relationship with his mother, and even a list of confessions—including, “My name isn’t even Bond. It’s Bondstein.” Imagine Bond’s sultry voice giving his catch line. Now imagine him with the name Willie Bondstein. How sexy is, “Bondstein. Willie Bondstein”?
Bond’s name is perfectly selected. James is noted as one of the sexiest names. The last name “Bond” represents trust, wealth, and connection. It’s a name that, even standing on its own, achieves a degree of sexiness that many modern men strive for without success.
Another example at the opposite end of the spectrum is Harry Potter. As Rowling says in outright description of Harry’s name, it’s a “dreadful common name.” Having this common name makes Harry’s meteoric rise to absolute otherness even more compelling. What if it was, “Yer a wizard, Valdimir”?
Tips for Finding the “Right Name”
Tip #1: Use Name Generation Tools
When it’s time to generate a name for a character, assuming you don’t have a name in mind, you should pick one out of a hat. Luckily, the modern world has lots of hats to choose from. Some of my favorite include:
- Baby name books or websites. I often have an idea of what letter I want a name to start with, so I open those pages and pick randomly.
- Random name generators. These also come in fantasy, porn star, and other themed versions.
- Graveyards. I love wandering through graveyards for character names.
- Phone books. Yes, I know it’s kind of weird to use a phonebook these days, but nothing is quite as “randomly generated” as opening up to an arbitrary page and seeing what names you get. This is especially useful for last names.
Once you find a name, simply sit with it for a moment. Write a sentence or two describing your character and using the name. Might it work? It so, jot it on a list. If not, toss it out.
Tip #2: Understand “Strong” and “Weak” Sounds/Letters
For English readers, certain sounds that will sound stronger or weaker. Sounds that involve a glottal sound (the sounds made from the back of your mouth) tend to sound stronger or more masculine, so James, Lock, Daphne, and Tom all have strong elements. Sounds made at the front of the mouth or primarily with the tongue tend to sound weaker or more feminine , so Lily, Tim, Glease, and Bill have weaker elements. Many names have a combination of both, like Lisa, Smith, Lauren, and Jonathan.
We often find a vowel at the end of feminine names, which sometimes refers to the choice to soften an otherwise hard sound. In general, using more strong sounds will create a character that seems tougher and more masculine while using softer sounds will create a character that seems more emotional or feminine. This can give you a good starting point in thinking about your character names.
Tip #3: Work the Name Into the Story
When my mother was young, she was a singer in ambitious pursuit of her musical dream. She was in bands, spent all her time listening to and studying music, and eventually got together the money to go to school for it. There, during her first semester, she met my father.
My father was smitten, and he pursued her with great success. The two were instantly inseparable. And three months later, love being what it is, my mother was pregnant. It just wasn’t possible for her to stay in school with the pressure of raising a child.
And when I was born, she named me Cadence.It took me years to realize how significant that name was. Cadence. It’s a musical term for the melodic rhythm of a piece, and more specifically, the piece of music that tells you the song is over. I am the epitaph on my mother’s dead dreams.
Hopefully this (admittedly indulgent) example illustrates the point: “Cade” gains an emotional layer because of the story associated with his name. While “Cade” lacks any strong romantic associations on its own, it becomes a powerful name if that power is built around it in the storytelling process.
Tip #4: Don’t Fear Normality
It’s true that a series of excessively normal names can change the tint of your story, but this is often a benefit to those working with modern realism. Let’s take the list of characters in How I Met Your Mother:
Ted, Robin, Marshall, Lily, and Barney.
In my not-all-that-humble opinion, one of these names is not like the others. “Barney” sticks out as a bizarre name coming from an era that the other names simply do not. The normality of the other names allows for the name “Barney” to stick out, which is perfectly fitting due to how awesome he is. Further, the sense that these characters are everyday people is enhanced by their everyday names.
Tip #5: Don’t Fear Irony
While one way to go is to find associations that fit your character perfectly, you can give your nomenclature a humorous edge by going for ironic names. For example, Lily Aldrin from How I Met Your Mother embodies none of the delicate elements that we would expect from a “lily,” which helps highlight the dualistic role of her character.
(Anyone lost on my HIMYIM references should load up Netflix and start watching that show. It’s superbly written and entirely worth watching.)
Tip #6: Don’t Overdo It
Unless you’re trying to be funny, try not to make the associations of the name obvious. “Sterling Archer” uses this overdone nomenclature to humorous effect, but Stephanie Meyers may have been sadly sincere in naming her lead “Bella Swan.”
Ask yourself, “Is it obvious what I want readers to associate with my character?” If so, you’ve probably gone too far.
Tip #7: Use Names to Time-Stamp Your Characters
In Friends, when Ross suggests the name “Ruth” for their child, Rachel retorts, “Oh, I’m sorry, are we having an 89-year-old woman?” Our associations with age and name are powerful, and this can be used to your advantage. If you have a character from a different generation, consider using a name that was common at the time of their birth. As a quick reference guide, here’s a list of the top 5 names each year for the last hundred years.
Tip #8: Use Nicknames
W.C. Fields said, “It’s not what they call you that matters. It’s what you answer to.” A nickname can help illuminate not only the general associations we should have with a character but how they think of themselves and want to be perceived by others. A man named “Robert” who goes for the name “Rob” as opposed to “Bob” or “Robbie” likely thinks of himself somewhat differently than another “Robert” who chooses one of those alternatives, but a man who nicknames himself “The Mad Hatter” or “Shotgun” has taken it to a whole new level.
Tip #9: Screen Your Names
One key of finding the right names is to trust your instincts. Another is to mistrust your instincts completely and ask your readers what impressions they get from the character’s name. I named an elf character in a fantasy story “Gelwyl,” a name I loved, but I received multiple comments that the name had too many associations with weakness. Gel was too much like jelly, and the idea of a “gel will” hindered the character. As always, use your readers as your first, second, and third line of defense—at a minimum.
Tip #10: Pay Attention!
This applies to every facet of reading as a writer, but you can apply attentive reading specifically to developing your sense of character nomenclature. While reading, pay attention to the names of each character and how those names reflect (or don’t reflect) the character’s primary attributes. Ask yourself if these associations help or hinder your reading of the character.
Tip #11: Just Go with It
Have you finished your story? How much have you written? If your first step in writing is going through an extensive process of character naming, you’re sabotaging your work. For now, pick a name and go with it. Thanks to the modern miracle of “find and replace,” it’s not difficult to fix up a lackluster name.