Writers will often tell me that they don’t know where to start with writing or editing their story. One good place is with something that looks deceptively simple—naming your characters.
Below, I’ve included six questions you should ask yourself when picking your characters’ names. I’ve also listed seven sites to help make this task easier and uploaded a video that gives a tour of each site.
Want a PDF of the questions and the character-naming sites? Sign up here for a free Tips for Naming Characters Guide.
I want to hear about your character names in the comments and how you selected them, along with links to the books we can find them in!
But first, let’s discuss why names are so important. Regardless of whether you’ve finished your draft or are in the early stages of writing the book, it’s important to assess whether your name choices do the story justice.
What’s In A Name?
Think about famous fictional characters like Katniss Everdeen, Albus Dumbledore, Bridget Jones, Luke Skywalker, and Sherlock Holmes. Or how about Fudge from the Judy Blume books, or Ponyboy Curtis from The Outsiders? Can you imagine any of those characters with a different name? Neither can I.
I give a lot of thought to naming my characters, especially the protagonists. Let’s take my chick lit novel Fooling Around With Cinderella. I chose Jaine for my reluctant theme park Cinderella as it symbolized the transformation of a “Plain Jane” into her new role as princess, and more importantly as a confident young woman.
My mystery novel Sink or Swim is about Cassidy, a reality show contestant grappling with her newfound fame and the attraction of a stalker. As a child, I got hooked on reruns of The Partridge Family and remembered reading about David Cassidy’s mobs of fans and his devastation when a teenage girl was killed in a gate stampede at one of his concerts. That always stuck with me. When I was outlining my novel, the name “Cassidy” popped into my mind, and it felt right as it represented the downside of fame. Even though my readers probably wouldn’t make the connection to David Cassidy, naming her that helped to reinforce the theme in my mind.
When I was growing up, I also loved watching reruns of Charlie’s Angels. My favorite angel was Kris, portrayed by Cheryl Ladd, and I’d imagine that I was a private detective, too. That’s why the protagonist in my first mystery novel, Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, is named Kris. Once I gave my character that name, I found it much easier to write about her as I was tapping into my love of women sleuth stories.
Not every name has to have a deeper meaning, but it does need to fit your character and story. This goes for your supporting cast also. I’ll use baby name books and online name directories to get ideas, then choose the one that fits best. Usually a few will jump out at me, and I’ll go with the one that “feels right.” I’ve also been known to change names in mid-story.
Here are some questions you should ask yourself when considering names for your characters.
6 Character Naming Questions
1. Is there a story behind why your character’s parents chose that name?
We had a fascinating discussion in the Shortcuts for Writers Facebook group about why our parents named us what they did and how we got our nicknames. I started the discussion because I wanted everyone to think about how they might apply this question to their characters, especially the most important ones. If you’re a member of the group, you can look for it under Characters in the Topics section and add the story behind your name.
2. Does the name fit the character’s background—what is the character’s age, ethnicity, and geographic location?
This goes a long way toward making your characters and story world believable. For example, according to the Social Security database, the top boy and girl names in 2018 were Liam and Emma. In 1918, the top names were John and Mary. If your protagonist’s grandfather was born in 1960 and is from an Italian family, Angelo would work better than Aidan.
3. Does the name fit the genre and time period?
If you’re writing a historical novel set in medieval times, a girl named Zoe doesn’t fit the era, but readers should accept Millicent, Alice, or Eleanor. If you’re writing a vampire novel, Tobias may resonate with readers more than a name like Chuck
4. Is the name easy enough for readers to pronounce?
If your audience keeps stumbling over it, this doesn’t make for a relaxing reading experience. This is particularly important for a character who appears a lot such as your protagonist.
5. Did you avoid using names that sound too similar?
Limit how many names start with the same letter such as Adam, Alex, Andy, and Annette as readers may get confused. Also limit having too many names with the same ending sound (Sandy, Cindy, Danni, Bennie), that rhyme (Dawn and John), or that have the same number of syllables. (Jen, Sam, Tom.)
6. Did the character’s name shape who he/she becomes or reinforce any qualities?
I took this quite literally in Fooling Around With Cinderella. A supporting character was named Tiara by her quirky parents, and she embraced it. Guess what she collects? Tiaras. This can also be more subtle. Is your character Harmony calm and peaceful? Or, is she the opposite of the hippie parents who bestowed it upon her? Is your character Jagger rugged and macho?
According to George Lucas, Darth Vader—the name of Luke Skywaker’s father—can be traced back to the Dutch and German words for “Dark Father.” We don’t find out about the family relationship until The Empire Strikes Back, but we met Darth Vader in the original Star Wars film. How’s that for foreshadowing? In more Star Wars trivia, Luke Skywalker was originally named Luke Starkiller, but Lucas changed it because he thought Starkiller sounded too aggressive. Good choice!
I’m a diehard fan of the TV series Supernatural. When I started watching it, one of the first things that struck me was the boys’ last name. Dean and Sam Winchester. Since Winchester is associated with guns, that is the perfect surname for a pair of badass monster hunters.
7 Helpful Character Name Generators
Now that we’ve established why names are important and what you should consider, let me give you some helpful resources. It can be hard to pluck the perfect name from thin air, but luckily you have plenty of options to find inspiration. In the below video, we’ll tour seven sites to help you find the perfect name.
Below are the sites covered in the video. Remember, you can sign up here for a PDF of my free Tips for Naming Characters Guide, which includes the questions and name sites included in this article in a handy download.
Random Name Generator – This generator contains English first and last names based on the database of the US Census. If you need to come up with a quick name, try this one.
Social Security Popular Names Database – If you’d like to search popular names by year, then check out the Social Security database.
Name Generator Fun – You can find a slew of real names and fantasy names arranged by category. Need a princess name? A superhero name? How about a unicorn name? You’ll discover all that and loads more.
Nameberry – From Avery to Zephyr, Nameberry is the complete guide to thousands of baby names. You can browse by style such as cool names, names with interesting meanings, historic and vintage names, and more. The creators of Nameberry also have a book out called Beyond Ava & Aiden, offering hundreds of innovative lists of baby names. You can check it out on Amazon here.
Behind the Name – Discover the etymology and history of first names including African, European, Biblical, Ancient & Medieval, Literature, and more.
Reedsy Character Name Generator – Kickstart your story with this random name generator that has 1,000,000+ names to inspire you. Sort using filters such as language, gender, medieval, and fantasy.
Fantasy Name Generators – Fairy names, vampire names, gargoyle names, evil names, unicorn names, knight names. I could go on and on. It also offers other sections such as place names. Need to brainstorm the name for an arcade, bakery, magic shop, space station, or forest? How about an African town or a steampunk city?
If you’re thinking about writing a book, are in the middle of a WIP, or working on edits, make sure you’ve given careful consideration to names. It will enrich your story, help readers connect with the characters, and you may even learn a thing or two about your fictional cast.
How do you choose character names? Leave me a comment with one of your character names, why you chose it, and the retail link if it’s in a published book.
If you found value in this post, I’d love it if you would share it.
Hi there! I’m Stacy Juba, an author, freelance editor, and the founder of Shortcuts for Writers. I’d love to connect. If you’re a writer, here’s how we can work together:
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I’ve been told that The Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon is also a helpful resource. From Amazon: The ultimate guide to choosing character names, with over 25,000 first names and surnames, and their meanings. The Character Naming Sourcebook includes reverse lookup of names by their meaning, an alphabetized index of names, and an explanation of naming practices as well as context for each origin. New York Times #1 Bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon provides insight into creating believable names that fit your characters and story. https://amzn.to/2HhkMXT
Oh, wow. This is a great blog post. What a fabulous list of resources and interesting stories behind the names in your books and others. I put a lot of thought into my main characters’ names. Sometimes, they have actual meaning, sometimes they just ‘fit’ – I like to choose names for my fictitious locations that have some kind of hidden, or even obvious, meaning. I named my town in my Soul Seducer Reaper book ‘Boone’, even though it was basically cursed and horrible things happened in it. I had a lot of fun with names of secondary characters in my Haunting at Spook Light Inn novella. Since it’s a gothic mystery romance, influenced by my love of Victoria Holt, and since she had about half a dozen pen names, I used many of her first and/or last names of her pseudonyms. https://www.amazon.com/Haunting-Spook-Light-Inn-Oklahoma-ebook/dp/B01GNGTU96/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=haunting+at+spook+light+inn&qid=1581462687&s=digital-text&sr=1-1. Thanks for all the info!
Thanks so much for visiting, Alicia. I’m so glad you found it helpful! It’s neat how we all have our inside stories about what inspired our character names. I have always enjoyed reading Victoria Holt also – how fun to use some of her pen names for your secondary characters. Love the title of your book! It sounds like an intriguing read.
Yes, lot’s of great information here!
My characters usually come to me already named, LOL but there have been times I’ve had to change a character or two’s names – like in The Visionary, twins were Taylor and Tyler but agent said they were too close so Tyler became Trevor. The hero was Terry – again too many “T’s” and he became Alex….
How I chose the new names might seem weird but I asked them…. I asked Taylor what her twin’s name should be then started listing all the T names I could think of. Nothing resonated with me until Trevor.
As for Terry/Alex … again I asked him… OK what can I call you? Alex was whispered to me and I didn’t argue.
OK maybe I am a little weird LOL!
THANKS for sharing
Good luck and God’s blessings
Hi Pam, Nice to see you here! LOL, we’re all a little weird! Sometimes I’ll free write in a character’s point of view before I start writing the book and see what the character tells me about herself or himself. It’s often quite interesting what comes out! I’ve had to change names because they sounded too similar also. That drives me crazy as then I have to come up with another one. Thank goodness for Find and Replace.
I have used the Kenyon book for determining my character names for a long time. Once I know what cultural heritage I want my characters to have, I look for names that give a clue about that fact or about a personality trait. In my last release, I wanted a name that fit an upright lawyer who lived his life as a rule follower. He became Grayson Wainwright, an Englishman. Opposite him, I chose an emotional, hot-blooded woman named Catalina del Mar. I loved how the syllables rolled together as I typed them. https://www.amazon.com/Grayson-Bachelors-Babies-Book-8-ebook/dp/B081PCL5JC
I appreciate learning about the naming sources you provided.
Hi Linda, Thanks for visiting! I don’t know how that Keynon book never got on my radar before now. I love the names you chose, and how they help to show how opposite the characters are.
Stacy, hi – Earlier posters have said everything I planned to say, so I’ll simply say DITTO! The MC of KEEP ME SAFE is Sunny Valois, who has the moniker of Melba Columbo foisted on her by the Marshals Service when they cloister her in a safe house. I hate to think there may be other authors who have used the same names…
Hi Helen, Thanks for stopping by! Melba Columbo, I love it!
If you liked Melba, you might like the 3 librarian sisters in the same novel – Ginny and her twin sisters, Joyce and Rejoyce…….
Joyce and Rejoyce – I love it!
I’m posting this on behalf of Ralph from Chicago due a technical issue. Thanks for sharing the great ideas, Ralph!
I didn’t use ANY of the suggested sources. I made up own names, after originally assigning temporary ones.
For example, many of the crime thrillers I used to read offered a lucky reader a chance to have a character (not main) named after them. Using this idea, whenever I announced that I was writing a crime thriller, I’s ask to use their first or nickname as a character; most verbally said yes – so my female cop’s first name matches that of my dermatologist; the other two names matched those of her assistants. (One character’s nickname KAT matches that of a well-known writer/coach.) I bumped into an interesting name on a call-center call, and got her permission (she’s a character in book 2). Some of the other book 1 characters’ first names will be named after members of my writing group.
Now my book 1 victim is a performer who wears colorful hats as his signature, so his stage name is derived from the color of his clothing; and for his backstory I created a family name based on his stage name using a English-to-foreign language translator app – so his surname became the German version of his English stage name because it sounded stronger.
My book 2 executive victim needed a strong corporate name, so at the suggestion of another writing group member picked two very strong names. And all character surnames are derived from Chicago street names.
Ralph from Chicago
I’m a bit late to the party, but in historical fiction, if you are going to the middle ages, I suggest checking tax records and parliamentary records of the specific period you are writing about. Those are often available online and give you names you might not think of and give you earlier spellings of names. Yes, Millicent, Alice, and Eleanor were used, but they were often spelled differently. For Alice, as an example, Aalis or Adelais might fit the setting better and are early forms of the name that would have been more likely that the more modern spelling. They are similar enough not to jar but help build the feeling of ‘another time’.