How to Choose a Brilliant Name For Your Character

Think of a famous character from literature. You better believe his or her creator didn’t just pluck the character’s name from a hat and call it a day.

You want the name to suit your character. Even more so, strive to have your character’s name symbolize something about his or her struggle, hint something surprising about this character to readers, fit into your character’s setting, or reveal something about your character’s family.

Now you know why naming your characters can be a tedious and thoughtful task. You may be asking: “How do I start looking for the perfect moniker?”

Here are 5 tips on finding a great character name:

1. Hit the books.

Hit the baby name books, that is! Aside from providing you with a huge database of names from A to Z, the true value in baby name books is the explanations of origins, meanings, symbols and larger cultural associations. Did you know that “Liam” means “helmet” or “protector”? Bequeathing this name onto a backstabbing villain, or a cowardly peripheral character may hint something about Liam’s eventual transformation.

2. Consider sounds.

The combinations of letters and sounds in some names can conjure feelings about the actual people they label. For instance, the name Scout Finch is dominated by hard consonant sounds. Plus, the two choppy syllables fit Scout’s gruff tomboy personality. Similarly, Ebenezer Scrooge just sounds like the perfect moniker for a grumpy old man. Severus Snape wouldn’t have been so vile a character with a name like “Herbie Jenkins.” Play around and see what fits.

3. Be wary of “charged” names.

Emotionally charged or culturally loaded names like Adolph, Madonna, Oprah, or Napoleon can potentially trip up a reader. Be sure to fill readers in. Maybe you can incorporate such a name into your character’s backstory. For instance, maybe a character’s mother is a big Oprah fanatic. What does this say about their relationship?

4. Learn another language.

Does your novel take place in a foreign country? Or, is your main character of a nationality that you don’t know much about? Consider delving into your character’s roots, so to speak, by learning a different language, or interviewing a friend or acquaintance that happens to speak the language you want to know more about.

If you want your readers to understand that one character is brave, investigate the word for “brave” in another language. You may come across vocabulary that jogs your right brain and get you thinking about the ideal first and last names. Even if your character doesn’t speak the language you investigate, that doesn’t mean you can’t give him a name from that language. Making an unexpected choice like this may lead you down an interesting path as you continue to write your novel.

5. Go to the movies.

You know those seemingly endless movie credits at the end of the movie? They can be great resources for gathering name ideas. Keep this in mind especially as you head to bigger blockbusters that were shot around the world — like movies in the James Bond franchise, or Lord of the Rings, for example. More often than not, each location has its own local set of crew members. For instance, the crew of a Belfast shoot may have many Irish names, the crew of an Egyptian shoot may have many Arabic names, and so on. This can be a fun way to find inspiration.

No matter what path you explore, know that the quest for a great character name can be one of the most exciting parts of the brainstorming process. As I’ve seen in working with fiction authors, a great deal of careful thought goes into selecting the perfect name for a novel’s character. Happy writing!

29 comments on “How to Choose a Brilliant Name For Your Character

  • I love it when, as a reader, one can dissect a character name and pinpoint the symbols and cultural associations behind a character. I was reminded of countless famous literary characters while reading this post, such as Holly Golightly, Emma, Sherlock Holmes, Madame Bovary…the list goes on.

    • Dear Deborah,

      I definitely agree! It’s so satisfying for a passionate reader to come across a name she can really sink her teeth into. Names that cause a reader to ask questions and ponder a character as he/she moves throughout the story is a great way to add value to a story.

      Your examples are spot-on. Thanks for joining in the discussion.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  • Dear Diane,

    What fun, rich and truly unique ideas. I personally love the idea of sitting through a movie’s credits and drawing inspiration from the names on the screen. You provide concrete suggestions on naming a character, from the brainstorming beginning process to finalizing the perfect name.

    I also enjoyed pictured “Severus Snape” as a “Herbie Jenkins!” Very humorous.

    • Hi Supriya,

      Thanks so much for chiming in! I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this post. It was a fun one to write!

      Happy writing,
      Diane

  • I’m a self-published author. I found my character’s names in baby name books, too. I recommend “Beyond Ava & Aidan” – it’s not too weighed-down with origins, meanings, etc. It helps an author in a rush really cut to the chase.

    • Hi Yvette,

      Wow! What a great tip. I’ll be sure to check it out and refer it to my fiction author clients. The title also tells me that this particular collection of names aren’t too in-tune with current trends, and contains a lot of variety.

      Congrats on your self-published novel! Are you working on anything else at the moment?

      – Diane

  • Very solid post. I, myself, was thinking of the doomed “Humbert Humbert” while reading this. I’m also happy you brought up the concept of “charged names.” They’re important to keep in mind!

    • Hi Ted,

      Thanks for your kind words. Humbert Humbert is a classic name! Perhaps I’ll cover him in a sequel to this post.

      Happy writing!

    • Hi Samantha,

      Welcome to the blog. It’s always wonderful to have more fiction authors chime in. How is your novel coming along?

      Thanks so much for linking me to this Mental Floss article — it’s fascinating! What a fantastic piece. I’m definitely tweeting this. Do you follow me on Twitter. Definitely connect if you can — @WriteToSell.

      As you’re plowing through your own novel, feel free to let me know what you want to see on the blog. Happy writing!
      -Diane

    • Hi Marty,

      Fantastic idea — this could be a great way to generate some good names. However, I urge you to keep in mind my point about “charged” names. A name plucked from a recent big headline — like Steubenville, for instance — can trip up, rattle, or upset a reader even years later.

      Hope that helps!
      Diane

    • Hi Rhona,

      Yes, this is the infamous Harpo! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Are you a fiction writer? If so, let me know what else you would like to see on the blog!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  • So much goes into a name! I’m going as far as to say that authors put MORE thought into naming their characters than some parents naming their babies! I say this because, obviously, the novelist has more control over a character’s traits, personality and outlook on life. The author should know what suits a character best. I recommend that readers/writers check out the show Once Upon a Time — it’s cheesy, but the writers do a great job in giving characters symbolic names. The queen, for instance, is named “Regina,” Little Red Riding Hood is named “Ruby,” and so on. They’re not as complex as your Liam example, but I think it shows how easy it can be to sneak in some back story.

    • Hi Michelle,

      Thanks so much for chiming in with such detailed examples. I would say that in an ideal world, authors should put such deep thought into naming their characters! I have not seen Once Upon A Time, yet my assistant often echoes your point that the character names contain interesting symbols. Thank you for the tip!

  • Great ideas! Scrivener has a a handy tool in the program called Name Generator that is also useful for creating character names.

  • Diane!

    Seriously, some friends of mine mentioned a guy at their church named Pickle Moore. I cracked up and asked why on earth he’s called Pickle?

    They looked at each other and said, “You know, we’ve never thought about it. He’s always been called Pickle Moore.”

    I met an elderly lady at a birthday party, she introduced herself to me as Bunch.

    I thought she had dementia. I was so embarrassed to find out everyone calls her Bunch. It’s short for Honey Bunch, her childhood nickname.

    I wanted to toss in something about character names that baffles me when I’m reading. Out of all the names on the planet why do some writers reach for a name that the reader is never quite sure how to pronounced.

    It kills me in chapter 10 to find out I’d been reading it wrong. Or I end up just giving them a nickname like Dr D or Ms Q because my brain wants to focus on the story and stop stumbling over that dang name

    I loved in CS Lewis’ “The Voyage of the Dawntreader” when he said something like..

    His name was Eustace Clarence Scrugg and he almost deserved it”

    What an opener!!!

    I keep a list of cool names of people I meet. I love names! Don’t any one steal Pickle Moore or Bunch cuz those are mine! Ha!

  • Hello Diane,

    You bring up some excellent ways to brainstorm. I also suggest exploring television for unique names. Some iconic shows also showcase fantastic, well-chosen names that reveal so much about character. I suggest to my fellow novelists programs like The Wire, True Blood, and Frasier.

  • Hi I am writing about a sensitive subject and was wondering what kind of names you would suggest as I don’t want to use the actual names. These are all people born in the south and poor born between 1900 to 1950. Any suggestions? I got a handle on the first names by years but am struggling with the last names. Thanks

    • Hi Barbara,

      Thanks so much for chiming in and asking your question. It’s definitely a good one.

      I would suggest digging up census statistics from those years to get a sense of common surnames. Or, a quick Google search (something like “Common surnames in the American South”) might be fruitful. I myself just found this interesting list of common surnames, which I hope is helpful to you: http://names.mongabay.com/most_common_surnames.htm

      If you’re still worried about protecting your characters’ names, perhaps search for common surnames even further back in America’s history, say in the 1800s.

      Another suggestion would be to search through the lists of popular surnames and modify it a bit. For instance “Whitman” could become “Whitcomb,” etc. I hope that helps! I wish you luck with your project.

      Warm Regards,
      Diane

  • One of the things I truly hate is when a writer names several of her characters with names that all start with the same first letter. I read one author who started three of her characters with the same first two letters. When working with strange names this should be a hanging offense. Writers, seriously there are 26 letters in the alphabet and combined with at least 15 second letters possibilities you have over 300 possible name beginnings. There should never be a need to the same first two letters for any of your characters unless they are from Vulcan or the like.

    • I totally agree with you, Bette. In fact, this is one of my pet peeves, too. To add to that I would also say to avoid using names that have similar letters or sounds in the middle of their names. For instance: Mike and Jake; or Joanne and Leanne. And certainly avoid rhyming names such as: Jen and Len.

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