Friday Fun – Choosing Character Names

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: How important is a character’s name? How do you choose just the right one? Do you have any particular places you turn to when searching for the perfect moniker?

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: I think a lot about characters’ names. I like finding names that have historical or mythical meanings, but my choices are also influenced by the way a name sounds as well as my own personal experience (if any) with that name.

I tend to prefer unique names. The main characters in the middle grade fantasy I’ve been dallying with for a few years are named “Wren” and “Finn.” I struggle, however, with fantasy names in general. For the most part, I feel like all the fantasy names I come up with sound super cheesy.

I also love “noun names” that are applied to creatures who are a different kind of being,  for instance: a man called Horse, a cat named Mouse, or a dog named Bear and a Bear named dog.

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson: Names are a challenge at times. Sometimes I’ll start a story with one name for a character and then get stuck and realize the name isn’t “right”. I’ve use the name generator tool at times, but mostly I let the characters tell me what names they want.

Years ago, I would use gender-neutral names a lot. For instance, Alex for Alexandra, or Joe for Josephine, as I thought it was important to have the character come across ‘strong’ and ‘masculine’ yet have a small twist be that the character is actually an independent woman.

I do sometimes choose names based on people I knew/know, particularly if I want to use a lot of their traits. I do have favorite names, of course, and sometimes it’s difficult NOT to use them – but it can be confusing to have ‘Dave’ be in multiple stories when he’s not at all the same character. Know what I mean?

When writing childrens’ stories, coming up with names hasn’t generally been a problem. Most are nicknames, or at least simple words that kids can pronounce and relate to. No multisyllable words, or variations of ‘standard’ names — for instance, I would use Jane instead of Jayn or Jayne or Jaayn.

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: This is such a great question. Names are so much harder than I expected. My Clock Shop Mystery series has a core cast of characters. Then each book has to have their own characters. You would be amazed at how easy it is to write an entire novel without realizing that you have three characters with the same initials. Yeesh. I have one character who bid on naming rights in a Malice Domestic auction. I’ve also used the web to find names with specific meanings. I have a friend who recently lost her mother–I named a character for her. When desperate, I post on Facebook for suggestions.

23 thoughts on “Friday Fun – Choosing Character Names

  1. Pingback: Reblog | Choosing Character Names | JCU // Creative Writing Workshop

  2. Pingback: Friday Fun – Choosing Character Names | Jacci DeVera

  3. Funnily enough I just ran into this problem today. In the new fictional novel I am writing, one of the main characters is called Ria. But everyone pronounces it like ‘Reeah’ whereas I had a great aunt Ria and it is pronounced like ‘Rye-ah’ It is an unusual name I grant you, but one I like. However in my mind people have to get the right pronunciation or it just doesn’t make sense! Also struggling to come up with a name for a small rural village in Northern Ireland (real name Ballynascreen!) How does Ballynastraw sound? Love Friday Fun!

  4. Lisa, I love your gender-neutral suggestion. I have a character who most definitely has the wrong name and because she is so strong this may be the right way to name her. Thanks.
    As I revise what I hope will be my first novel, I’m reconsidering everybody’s name except the main character. I’ll keep all of your suggestions close at hand until they all have the right names. thank you.

  5. I never think up names for my characters. At least not the main characters. They tell me their names. For one of my novels, I was initially feeling perplexed about why my main character didn’t have a name. I’m a “dreaming” writer – that is, many of the things I write come to me in dreams or in twilight sleep. So one night I literally asked my character what her name was – yup, put it right out into the storytelling Universe – and sure enough, she told me. It was a name I’d never heard of — turns out, the meaning of the name tied in perfectly with her character profile and the theme/storyline of the book.
    For secondary or tertiary characters, whatever comes to mind first usually works.

  6. Sometimes names just come, and others…well, my main character in my new series was the *foundation* for the series. Her nickname, at least. And four months ago it occurred to me that her nickname wasn’t working. Oh, hell. So I thought and listed and thought and researched, and I *finally* came up with a new name that I love. The whole process was agonizing.

  7. Hi, this is my first post here. Happy to have found the site. I often have to refine and retune names. Sometimes I find out my characters have an unusual spelling. Boy, that’s embarrassing after using the wrong name throughout a story.Why didn’t they tell me sooner.

  8. When I start a project, I have a name day. That’s when I pull out my bible-sized book of baby names from around the word and from mythology to get a feel for names that fit my story. Sometimes the most random things affect my choice. For example, a story set in winter might send me to Nordic names.

  9. Can you believe naming characters is one reason I’ve never made a serious attempt at writing fiction? I’ve always thought the names needed to be metaphoric somehow. I love the idea of the characters eventually telling you what their name is once you get to know them. Great topic!

  10. Pingback: Friday Fun – Choosing Character Names | kambojshubham

  11. I’m having trouble thinking of a name for my main character. Can you guys help me?

    He’s a fourteen-year-old wizard, with a bit of a temper. I think, Jack, Jason or Rover. Should I pick one of these, or do you guys have suggestions?

  12. This is such a great topic. I, personally, love the naming process. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I use a variety of methods/sources. I always let the world, culture, character, and feel help me on deciding the name. Sometimes it just comes to me. I like to balance unique with common so I’m not overloading with unusual pronunciations or foreign looking words. If it fits the story I’ll make up my own names, usually based on real names. I use online sources depending on what I’m looking for. If I want mythology or a specific culture I will search under the appropriate key words. I could honestly get lost in the site You can easily jump from one name to any of the “similar” names they list and there is a ticker across the top of recently searched names. It’s a good balance of unique and practical and mainstream. All kinds of names in there.

    One thing that hasn’t been mention that I always like to share: surnames can be especially difficult to come up with. Searching for them online usually lists them in alphabetical order which, I find, isn’t a very compelling way to look. I offer the suggestion of watching the end credits to movies. You will get an entire list of names varying in cultures, uniqueness, and simplicity. Whatever you’re looking for. The credits are so long, filled with so many different people, it’s like a grab bag of naming possibilities. And they’re all real names, so if you’re worried about names sounding “silly” at least you have the benefit of knowing it’s a real world name you’re using.

    Names. They are honestly my favorite.

  13. I kind of choose names based off the taste the name has when associated with that character. For example, I have an awkward boy in one story called Oscar, a cynical, up-himself teacher named George Rothschild in another, and in one story the fairy queen is called Rhiannon, her fairy pianist is called Roselle and the mermaid’siren who spies on them is called Nerissa!

  14. I find it hard sometimes, because I think it is important. One thing I like to bear in mind is what name the character’s parents (or whoever named them) would have given them and whether they use this or change it, either preferring a nickname or completely rejecting their birth name for one they chose. Most of the time we don’t choose our own name and not everyone’s suits them, although in fiction it can be jarring if a name feels all wrong, unless that in itself is the best effect for that character! Of course, each reader has varying associations for some names if they knew a person with that name 🙂

  15. I agree with letting the character choose his or her own name. Another route I take is starting the story with the name of someone that inspired the character’s aura or personality. Then, as I write, I play around with a unique name that “fits” and is also somewhat easy for the reader to pronounce. (Sometimes I love my character’s name so much, I want to change it and use that name for my own future kids!)

  16. How timely that you’ve posted this. I’m starting to develop characters for my second novel. While it’s fun to do, names often give me a problem. The right name for a character is so important. Question: Do you develop your character profiles first or the story line?

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