Naming Book Characters: 3 Easy Steps

A novelist shares her strategy

By Ellen Smith

I’m a name nerd.

True story: In college, I spent hours compiling data for a study on the attractiveness of male and female names. Amanda? Very attractive. Mildred? Not so much. Ken was more attractive than Keith, while Liam was about as attractive as Levi. By the end of the study, I had an Iliad-length research paper and a major caramel-macchiato addiction.

Ah, youth.

Believe it or not, even after all of that research, I still get excited to dream up the perfect names for the characters in my books. Finding just the right character name actually helps a story start to take shape in my mind. Since I have a tendency to get stuck on finding the perfect name (Maura or Mara? Lila or Lily?), I try to break the process down into just three steps.

Meaning

For my main characters, finding a name with the right meaning is a great first step. I like for the character’s name to reflect something about his or her personality. In my current work-in-progress, for example, I gave my two main characters names that represent their biggest inner conflicts. The male protagonist is driven by his desire to protect the people he loves. I decided to call him William because it means “the determined guardian.” On the other hand, the female protagonist struggles with overcoming feelings of bitterness at the setbacks in her life. Since Mara means “bitter,” I knew this name was perfect for her.

Sometimes I choose the name first and derive elements of the story from the name’s meaning. This is what I did with Arden, the main character in my novel, Reluctant Cassandra. Although I chose the name based on my own personal taste, I went ahead and looked up the meaning while I was pre-writing. When I found out that Arden means “valley of the eagle,” I had the name for Arden’s fictional small town: Eagle Valley, Virginia.

My favorite resource for this step is a baby names book. I have a few that simply list a thousand or so names and their meanings. I also love to check the name definitions here on Nameberry! There’s even a Writer’s Corner forum specifically for authors looking up character names.

As much as I love diving into name meanings, I can’t do this for every single character of every story. Even if I decide to skip this step, I always make sure to think about how my characters’ names reflect their culture.

Culture

My characters might be figments of my imagination, but I hope that they feel like real, authentic people to the reader. A person’s name generally reflects their parents’ taste, cultural expectations, and even family traditions. When I choose a name, I try to think about both the larger culture the character lives in as well as their smaller, family culture.

A little research into popular names for a certain place or time period helps generate believable names for my story’s setting. For Reluctant Cassandra, I looked up names that are frequently used in the South to fit the small-town Virginia vibe. For my current work-in-progress, I used popular American baby names from the 1980s to name Mara and Will’s college friends, who would be in their twenties during the early 00s.

Several of the families in my current work-in-progress aren’t originally from America. Their names have cultural and family significance as well. For example: Nayana, a traditional Indian name, was a good choice for a woman whose parents expect her to stay connected to her Indian roots. On the other hand, a Japanese-American family in the story constantly push their daughter to be more “American,” and that’s reflected in the name they chose for her: Laura, after the pioneer girl in the Little House series.

One of my favorite resources for this step is the Social Security Administration. If you need to get your hands on popular American names from any year from 1879 to present day, this is the resource for you. I also love to use the books by Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Satran, the creators of Nameberry. Their most recent book is Beyond Ava and Aidan, although I got mine back when the current book was Beyond Jennifer and Jason. Both books include information on cultural naming traditions and names that are popular across the world.

Even if a name has a great meaning or suits the culture of the setting perfectly, there’s one more nitty-gritty step I have to consider: practicality.

Practicality

This is the part where my name nerd hat comes off and I put my writer hat on instead. Some name choices that would be very realistic just don’t work in books. For example, I had to change the names of several minor characters because I realized they all sounded too much alike: Justin, Jessie, and Kevin. Jessie was a female character with a much different personality than Justin, so I didn’t think it would matter that both names started with J. However, whenever they got into an argument, the back-and-forth of Justin-said-Jessie-said got really confusing. Justin and Kevin were too close, too. Even though they started with different letters, they’re two-syllable names that rhyme with each other. When I re-read their pages aloud, I kept getting confused about which one said what. If a name I love just isn’t working, nymbler.com is a fun tool for finding similar names, and there’s also Namehunter on Nameberry.

My naming process may have only three steps, but it can be pretty time-consuming! Just considering meaning, culture, and practicality can keep me on my toes throughout the prewriting stage. Good thing I’m a name nerd—I love every minute of it!

Ellen Smith is a freelance writer and the author of Reluctant Cassandra . When she isn’t naming characters for her future books, she can be found reading, sewing, or avoiding housework. She blogs at ellensmithwrites.com.

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2 Responses to “Naming Book Characters: 3 Easy Steps”

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AldabellaxWulfe Says:

September 12th, 2016 at 2:14 am

“My characters might be figments of my imagination, but I hope that they feel like real, authentic people to the reader. A person’s name generally reflects their parents’ taste, cultural expectations, and even family traditions. When I choose a name, I try to think about both the larger culture the character lives in as well as their smaller, family culture.” – yes. Oh, good lord, yes.

I read a lot of stories online, and whether they be original or fanfiction in nature, the one thing that always bothers me is that a lot of people choose unrealistic names for their characters. Odd, unusual or cooky choices work in fantasy worlds, but when a writer is basing their story and characters off of our current reality, or one that’s similar, they just don’t work. A middle class suburban kid isn’t going to be Anastasiana-Emberlynn, nor would a daughter of Lily and James Potter, sister to Harry Potter, be a Firelight or Ebony. Often such out of place names seem like a lazy way to make a main character appear exciting and different. I’m not saying that characters can’t have names beyond your average John and Mary, but when picking a more unusual choice, it has to be justified – it’s got to fit the story.

paulapuddephatt Says:

June 7th, 2017 at 4:38 pm

I personally don’t name characters based upon the meaning of their name. In real life, your parents or guardians name you when you’re a baby. It seems bizarre to make meanings fit personalities on purpose. Some do anyway, by chance. I avoid similar sounding names, too. My protagonist, Lucy, was working with girls called Amy and Ruby. Lucy and Amy both had to stay, but I altered Ruby to Ruth. That worked better for me. I write modern historical, so I use a lot of classic names, and some old-fashioned and dated ones. I avoid modern names. My novel is set in the 1980s and very early 1990s.

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