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.
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Stacy Juba, the founder of Shortcuts for Writers, is a freelance editor and online course creator who teaches authors how to simplify the self-editing process and fit their writing goals into a busy life. Her books include the Storybook Valley chick lit series and the Hockey Rivals young adult sports novels.
Sign up for her free, on-demand masterclass, How to Create Your Editing Game Plan and Fast-Track Your Book: 3 Costly Mistakes to Avoid.