Picking A Name For Your Character

During a talk I recently gave, one man asked how I came up with names for my characters. I told him the truth, that a lot of times I pick up a newspaper, find names, and mix first and last names up (so I don’t use someone’s real name). That works best for secondary characters. Usually with with my main characters the names just come to me, but even then there have been times when I start with a name and find I need to change it along the way because it doesn’t seem to fit the character.

Back in 2015 I blogged about how I have a habit of repeating names (in different books). I do seem to have favorites. I have additional information about picking names in that blog (Names ), but the question about picking names prompted me to look into this topic a little more thoroughly.

Let’s say I’m working on a new book: all new characters, new setting, new conflict. How do I come up with a name for my main character?

  • First I need to know the time period for the story. A name that would fit a character in one time period might not be appropriate in another. To check for names popular for various time periods. (At least as far back as Social Security has records) go to:  https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/decades/
  • Even though I write contemporary mysteries, I still need to know how my character will be referred to throughout the book. Will it generally be by her first name? (This would be common for contemporary novels, but not as common for historical novels.) By her full name? Or by her full name or her last name along with a title? (Mrs. Martha Williams, Doctor Williams.) Will other characters call her by her last name most of the time? (If my character is a minor character, she might simply be the old witch, the nosy neighbor, or the doctor.)

* Be careful about using nicknames and switching from one form to another. That can be confusing to the reader. The reader might not realize Martha, Marty, Mar, and Big Martha are the same person.

* BUT, it isn’t confusing if the switch is made due to the situation. Dr. Williams to a patient, Martha Williams when being introduced to a group, and Martha to friends.

  • Do I want the name to have a subtle meaning? Allie Hope for a character who will bring hope to others. Maybe not so subtle: Cookie Baker, who’s known for her baking skills. Or Polly Bender, who can twist the truth many ways? (J.K. Rowlings had fun with characters’ names in her Harry Potter books.)
  • Whatever I name my main character, I want to make sure I don’t give similar sounding names to other characters in the story or it’s going to confuse the reader. (Do I really want Cookie and Snookie to go shopping together? Maybe Polly and Paul are working on a project together, but will my reader be able to remember who did what?)

Names can also hint at the character and the character’s past. Do I want this character to blend-in or stand-out? If it’s a strange name, was she teased as a child? Did she hate her name as a child? Is her name always being confused with someone else’s? Is she proud of her name? And so on…

Want to have some fun coming up with names? Go to the name generator:
https://www.behindthename.com/random/

or try this onehttp://random-name-generator.info/random/?n=10&g=3&st=1

Want not only a name but also characteristics. Check out: http://character.namegeneratorfun.com/

So you don’t duplicate a name that’s already been used, go to this site for a list of names used in well-known books:
https://www.behindthename.com/namesakes/list/fictional-books/alpha

Have fun!!!

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26 Responses to Picking A Name For Your Character

  1. I do like this post very much. Regarding names, they float across my brain as if a ticker tape is at work. That could be because of my acting background or not. Who knows. The creative mind at works. Thanks for a super interesting lesson on how to get things done.

  2. Choosing just the right name is a challenge. I spend some time with baby name books, ethnic name books, etc. I check on names popular when the character was born, and the kinds of ethnic names typical of the region where I’ve set the story. A good name is gold.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      I’ve done the baby books more than once. I also use newspapers (by lines), but I mix first and last names. Some times the name just comes to me.

  3. Vicki Batman says:

    Very good stuff. I tend not to use old fashioned names for the main character, more for secondary older characters. I read obits and get lots of ideas from there.

  4. Enjoyed this post, lots of good ideas and resources.

    A source for distinctive names: the IMDB film database lists of movie casts and crews. Hollywood folk always have great names and mixing different firsts and lasts works great!

  5. Carole Sojka says:

    Interesting post. I have used the phone book and baby name books, but I like the websites you’ve listed. They’re fun!

  6. Terry Shames says:

    I’m reading a book now that is frustrating because several characters have similar names and it’s hard remembering which is which. I think this is an editorial lapse. The editor should have pointed this out and asked the writer to rename at least one of the characters. I’m talking about something like Lisa, Liza, and Risa.

  7. Thanks, Maris. When it comes to naming, I need lots of help.

  8. I find naming characters difficult. Often, I change names for various reasons. Your ideas are helpful.

  9. Claire Naden says:

    I appreciated this as I have been having a hard time naming characters in my current book. I have used Master Lists for Writers, baby naming books and also will check out time periods for the popular names.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      I wish I were more creative when it comes to naming characters. Like you, Claire, I uses several sources. These name generators will now be added to my list.

  10. I find when the character appears in my head with a name and a storyline that the story is easier to write. Most of my characters tell me their name even if the character arrives before they story idea. The worst for me is when the storyline arrives and I don’t have a character name. Sometimes I can find their name quickly but sometimes I give them many names before I hit on the right one.
    I’ve never tried the name generators but I have used the phone book or the newspaper for ideas. I also keep a name file of any names from my spam file that sound good. I figure I those people spent the time to sound real, I’m going to steal the name from them. I think that file has three columns per page and four pages.

  11. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful post. I struggle with names because I do often use the same ones, so I have to work to find a new name which fits.

  12. Marni Graff says:

    Thanks for those websites, a great boon. I keep lists of names I like and their meanings that no one might look into but I know them and relate them to the characters; the same with ethnic names. One of my two series is set in England, so that’s always fun. My big thing is making certain I say the name out loud in a paragraph, as I would when reading it at an event. If it’s difficult to pronounce, it gets changed!

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Marni, I agree with you regarding saying the name out loud. I’ve seen character names in books I simply can’t pronounce. My characters get simple and easy.

  13. Since I’ve written 17 books in my Safe Harbor Medical romance series and 3 more in the spin-off mystery series, I keep not only a Characters file but also I list all first names together and all second names together. This helps me see if there’s a duplication or similarity.

    I go one step further: I check complete names on the Internet, especially if it’s a negative or villainous character. I’d really rather not get sued!

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Good idea regarding the list of first and last names, Jacqueline. I sometimes do wonder if a name I’ve come up with is one lingering in my memory from a person I met. I guess I should check on the Internet.