There’s nothing like getting your character names right. But assigning the right names can be tricky. When done well, they’ll fit each character like a cashmere sweater or a favorite pair of jeans. When done not so well, they’ll feel forced or like an afterthought—and no one wants their brainchild to feel like an afterthought. Especially brainchildren that you’ve grown to love. You want them to feel real and you want them to be memorable. But most of all you want your readers to connect with them. One way to do that is by choosing names that fit just right.
That means, naming your characters with intention.
I’ve never struggled to name my characters. I love naming them probably because I actualy like all names. Seriously. Even names that I don’t prefer in the traditional sense, have value because they can fit an evil character perfectly. And better yet, a name that I’m obsessed with in a good way, will make me love an adored character even more. I think it’s fun to find just the right one, like the missing piece to a puzzle. In other words, I put a lot of thought into the names I choose.
So where do I begin?
Let your mind wander. Before I begin drafting or outlining a new story, I brainstorm character names in a notebook. I always keep a running list of my favorites—names that I will use someday in a future scene or story. However, even though I keep a massive bank of names at my disposal, I still need help once in a while. I need names to add to my new story notebook!
So where do I look?
I search baby name websites for ideas. There are too many to list but they are great for finding popular names, meaning of names, names from a certain cultures and time periods, and names that begin with certain letters, etc.
I also follow name accounts on Instagram. These are fantastic for finding types of names like, flower names, or names inspired by movies, or vintage names, etc. One of my favorites is @adorednames. The person who runs this name-inspired account is clearly name-obsessed (in the best way possible) and I love reading each and every post. If you love the whole concept of names (like I do!), be sure to check accounts like this one out. But I warn you, it’s like falling down a rabbit hole. You may spend your entire day scrolling!
I pay close attention to pop culture too. At the end of a movie, I always read through the credits. You never know what you’ll find this way. During sporting events on TV, I’m always on the lookout for interesting names as well. I’ve used countless athlete-inspired names and celebrity-influenced names in my books.
Not too long ago, I read that an author walked through a cemetery to find name inspiration for her book. I wish I could remember who it was because that’s such an amazing (and creepy!) idea.
After you’ve chosen your character names, it’s important to evaluate them. You want to be sure that you’re happy with the ones you’ve picked. But there’s more to it than just looking at them—at least there is for me. Feel free to steal my method!
During revisions, I do a deep analysis of the names I’ve chosen for my work-in-progress manuscript. I check to be certain that each one achieves 5 things:
It looks right.
This is the most basic but also the most ambiguous. When I see the name written out on the page, I ask myself, do I like what I see? Do I like the combination of letters? Do I even like the name? Is it a name I can imaging writing and reading over and over again? Can I picture this character with this name attached to it? Do I like the letter it begins with?
I typically love using the letters A, S, M, K, C, and J for my main characters. I’m not sure why, but I’ve noticed that in every book I’ve written, the characters that play important roles always have names that start with these letters. I bet you’ll find that you have letter preferences too.
It sounds right.
Does the name flow off the tongue? Is it easy enough to pronounce aloud or read internally? If not, is there a reason for this? Sometimes its advantageous to choose a difficult name for a complex character. Does the rhythm of the name make sense for the character? Is it too choppy or too flowy? Is it too blunt or too plain?
It feels right.
Each story has a specific tone based on its genre. Historical fiction from the Victorian 1900s will feel different than science fiction from the future. As such, the names must make sense for their setting. It’s important to do your research for the time period you write in. Beyond that, a name needs to put off the correct vibe as well. I always ask myself, what do I think of when I hear it? Like it or not, we all have preconceived notions about names. Whether these notions stem from our childhood friends, from an ex-boyfriend, or from a co-worker, we tend to have strong opinions about certain names.
The Baby Name Survey Book by Bruce Lansky released while I was naming my first baby. It became my go-to guide and I devoured every page. It wasn’t a typical baby naming book, however. It reflected how popular culture (at the time) affected people’s perception of popular names. It included information on what people think of when they hear a particular name. So interesting!
It contains an Easter egg.
With each name I choose, I try to reveal something about the character. Think of it as showing not telling in a subtle name-choosing way. For example, I read somewhere that Stephanie Meyer, author of TWILIGHT, chose Swan for Bella’s last name as a nod to her inner beauty and grace, something klutzy Bella did not feel about herself. Also, it mirrored her evolution from an ugly duckling (human) to a beautiful swan (vampire).
In Spin the Golden Lightbulb, my five characters in the ensemble story were modeled after real kids. I changed their names but gave them the same initials. Jillian is a free-spirited dreamer who’s also incredibly caring and smart. Throughout the draft, she reminded me of a wildflower and I wanted to give her a first name that I had always liked (from my list of favorites) and a last name that reflected her personality. I chose Vervain because it’s a colorful perennial wildflower that also can be used to treat minor medical conditions. The fact that the beginning letters and syllables, in both her first and last names, matched the real-life person behind the character was a fun bonus.
It works well with the entire cast of characters.
Too many A names can be confusing to the reader. Too many four-syllable names can give your reader a headache. I try to mix up the leading letters and the number of syllables so that the whole ensemble feels varied and diverse. The right combination of names takes some thought, but once you figure out the right one, you’ll know it.
The right names will bring your characters to life.
I hope you find this method to be helpful. But remember, names are a personal thing and your story is yours. Find names that work for you and your characters. If they feel right to you, they probably are.
At the end of the day, I go with my gut feeling too. If I feel a name is right for a character and it doesn’t follow any other rule, I always use it!
Thanks for stopping by the blog today. As always, I appreciate you being here!