Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 27, 2024

The Name Game: Tips for Naming Your Characters

by Eldred “Bob” Bird

I’ve always been fascinated by character names. I often wonder why the author chose a specific name for that individual. Is it a family name, or a reflection of their culture? Does it carry some deeper meaning, or was it just the first thing to pop into their head? Maybe it started as a placeholder and over time the name just stuck.

There are countless ways you can name your characters. Some authors keep a baby name book handy, or comb through old phone books (yeah, I’m that old). Here are a few ways I like to approach naming my characters.

Three Ways to get Started

I generally derive my character names in one of three ways:

  1. Build the character first and name them based on their backstory, family history, or something specific about their personality.
  2. Choose a name and build the character around it.
  3. Slap whatever name pops into my head on the character and worry about it later.

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these and see what influences them.

Building the Character First

When I create a character, I want the name to tell you something about the individual. I usually build the character first before putting on a label. I often say that by the time I fully develop a character they’ve told me what their name is, but it’s not quite that simple.

Creating my main characters is something I put a lot of thought into. I know if the character doesn’t hold my interest, it’s not going to grab the reader either. They need to feel real to me before I can write their story. How do I get to know them? Backstory…

The first thing I do is open a new document and start dumping everything I think I want this character to be. I dig into their past and their dreams for the future. I explore their successes and expose their deepest fears. By the time I’ve free written a page or two, I start to see the character take shape in front of me.

This is when the character’s name starts to take shape. Geography can influence name choices. Different countries, states, and regions (like cities or rural areas) influence naming conventions. There are also things like ethnicity and religion that play a part. If you’re writing historical fiction, time period needs to be taken into account.

For more details on how to get to know your characters, checkout my posts on Digging Up Bones and 10 Questions to ask Your Characters.

Building a Character Around a Name

On occasion, a name will catch my attention and set my brain into motion. The sound and rhythm of it might paint a picture in my mind. When that happens, I feel inspired to create a character around the image. A perfect example is from my pulp inspired short story The Smell of Fear.

I was playing around with names one day and ended up with one inspired by my father. He was a junior and went by Jack all his life. When I put that in front of his middle name, I ended up with Jack Holloway. To me, the name had the ring of an old pulp detective. It didn’t take long for the character of Sgt. Jack Holloway to come to life.

When you hear an interesting name or one that brings a picture into your mind, make a note somewhere. You never know when it might come in handy. It may not fit into your current story but could inspire a memorable character (or even a whole story) in the future.

Placeholder Names

Let’s face it, there are times when we’re just not inspired to put a lot of effort into some of the secondary characters. We just want to get into the story and worry about those details later. We stuff any old name in and then move on. There’s no shame in doing this. It’s totally normal.

Placeholder names are a useful tool. They help us keep track of the players. Sometimes the name ends up sticking, sometimes not. The problem comes when we finally settle on a name and go back to change all instances of the placeholder. It’s very easy to miss a few. There’s an easy fix for this.

When you pick a placeholder name, don’t use common names. Pick something unique that you know will never be used anywhere else in the manuscript. That way you can simply use the search and replace tool to make your changes. This also helps if you get halfway through your book and decide to change a character’s name as they develop.

Final Thoughts

A lot of different factors go into naming your character and we’ve only scratched the surface here. If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction it can get even more complicated. Coming up with a consistent naming convention for these genres is a key part of world building.

The character’s name should say something about who they are, or who they want to be. In the end, the goal is to build a memorable character that your readers will relate to. The right name will go a long way toward reaching that goal.

What are some of your favorite ways to generate character names? Let us know in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Bob

Eldred "Bob" Bird

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).

His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

Bob Juggling Knives

Top Image by Ryan McGuire via Pixabay

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20 comments on “The Name Game: Tips for Naming Your Characters”

  1. For secondary characters, I often use a random name generator and ask for 100 iterations. Then pick and choose first and last with what feels right. For main characters, I do think about who they are, what they'll grow into, etc. Sometimes a story just doesn't work until the main character has the right name. So interesting how the mind works 🙂

  2. Like Sylvie, I often use a name generator for my fantasy romance stories, then tweak them if they don't sound quite right. For my main protagonists and antagonist(s), I must have their best name before I actually begin writing my first scene, not a placeholder. I've already done quite a bit of character building beforehand. I've only ever changed a main character's name once after beginning the writing process, and that was the last name. I realized I had too many with the letter "W." I enjoy coming up with just the right name, even if the reader has no (conscious) idea of the reason or the process.

    1. I've done the same thing with the first names. Too many 'J' names, but usually in the supporting cast. As for the main characters, yeah, I need to know them on a deeper level before I start writing. That's about the time they let me know what their name.

  3. I love my main character's name based on both religion and region. She overcame near death immediately after her birth. Her Italian mother prayed to St. Gerard, the patron saint of babies and children in distress. Baby prevailed and was dubbed Vittoria Gerarda.

    My question is, once you have named your main character, can a family nickname be used later in the story?

    1. I see no problem with adding nicknames. I do it all the time. They can add depth to the character and speak to their relationships with family and friends. I especially like it when the nickname is one the character hates. It can be used to add either tension or humor to a scene.

  4. Occasionally, my characters name themselves. Most of the time I have a name in mind. Depending on the story it might be culturally related. Sometimes a family name.

    I like the idea of using a random name generator. I might try that!

  5. Fun discussion, Bob! I often use placeholder names like Fred and George until I feel like I know the characters. Then I'll use name generators and look at the meaning and history of names to find something that I feel fits. The only problem is that it can take me a while to remember who the character is after I do the name change.

  6. I am having to name characters right now for a short story anthology and it took me a while. Most often a name comes to me, but sometimes I want it to be symbolic of something in their personality. Or, like some here, I'll use a name generator and keep generating until I get one that feels right.

    1. I also like the main character's names to have some meaning. Like James McCarthy in my series, if the character starts out as an ordinary person, I like it and ordinary name to reflect that fact.

  7. I also think it's important to pick a name consistent with the age of the character and decade of the story. It's good to look at the top 100 names of the year or decade, because some names will be out of place, depending on the generation of the character.

  8. To me, while reading or writing, the character's name is unimportant. What is critical is what that person is like. Creating a backstory that supports some key character traits is important. Then what other traits do I want to assign to that character that will help me accomplish the challenges that the character will face. Even the character's appearance is of secondary importance unless it helps develop a particular personality trait. Sometimes the year that the action takes place will dictate the character's name. I check baby names for that year.

  9. I would add, for the reader's benefit, don't use the same first initial for main characters. It becomes difficult to remember who is Sheila and who is Sylvia. Also, try not to introduce too many characters in the first chapter (or two). In some books, I realize I have to go back at page 36 and make a list of who's who.

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