Naming characters can be difficult. If you're like me, a handful of names come to mind when you're brainstorming a name. They usually start with only a few letters (for me, these letters are P, T, R, and M — don't ask me why).
This can make things difficult. Too many characters with names beginning in the same letter can confuse readers. Luckily, there are many tips to help you come up with character names. And we'll cover them in this article!
- The importance of character names
- What you should name your character?
- Tips for coming up with character names
- character name tips by genre
Table of contents
- How Important Are Character Names?
- What Should I Name My Character?
- How to Come Up With Character Names
- Character Naming Conventions by Genre
How Important Are Character Names?
The importance of character names is hard to quantify. For minor characters, they're really not all that important. Sure, there are some general guidelines you'll want to stick to (like not calling a minor character Fido unless there's a reason for it), but for the most part, minor character names shouldn't take up much of your energy.
But what about major characters? Well, this is what a lot of authors struggle with. They want to come up with cool character names for their protagonists and, sometimes, even their antagonists. The best heroes are memorable, and the best villains perhaps even more so.
Names like Harry Potter, Jack Reacher, Katniss Everdeen, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Sherlock Holmes stick with us long after we put their respective books down.
The same can be said for Voldemort, Darth Vader, Randall Flagg, and Hannibal Lecter.
So, while a good character name isn't as important as a good story or engaging writing, it can definitely add to the experience and make your readers remember the characters after their time with them is done. Sometimes it helps to create a character profile. Other times, just a bit of research can do the job.
What Should I Name My Character?
What you name your character is really quite personal. The book you write is wholly unique to you; no one else can write the same book. And the same can be said for characters.
No one can tell you what to write, just as no one can tell you what to name your characters. You can take suggestions, and you can be inspired by other great character names in fiction, but the ultimate decision is up to you. Use the tips below to try on a character name for size. Listen to your writer's instinct, and you'll know when you've got the perfect name for your characters.
How to Come Up With Character Names
The following tips can help you decide how to come up with character names. These are in no particular order, and any one of them (or a combination) may work for you.
1. Apply Alliteration
Wade Wilson. Bilbo Baggins. Sansa Stark. Peter Pan. All great examples of alliteration in character names. Something about the repetition tends to stick in our minds, which can make for a memorable name. Try it out for one of your characters. It’s best to use this sparingly, though. Alliteration for only one or two characters in a novel is best.
2. Search Lists of Baby Names
Sometimes all you need to do is look at a list of baby names to find great ones for your characters. This is where baby name websites and lists come in handy. A few minutes of scrolling could find you the perfect name! Plus, you can search by male and female character names, which makes things a bit easier. A good place to start is babynames.com!
3. Use a Character Name Generator
Did you know that there are plenty of tools out there that allow you to generate character names? They're free to use and very convenient. Even if you don't choose one of the names the generator comes up with, it can get the wheels turning and help you come up with one on your own! Check out my article on the best character name generators here.
4. Let the Character's Personality Inform Their Name
Many authors use a stand-in name for certain characters, knowing they'll replace it later. Some authors even put a blank _____ if they don't know or don't want to know the character's name yet. This is a good way to let the character's personality inform their name. Once you know the role the character will play, it can be easier to name them.
Han Solo is a great example of a character's personality influencing their name. Particularly the “Solo” portion, as it fits the character's aloof, lone-gunslinger personality. If you already know what your character will be like, use that to pick a name. List a couple of descriptive words about the character and use a thesaurus to find other words. Then you can pick one and turn it into a name!
On the other side of the spectrum, you may want to pick a common name for a character that is supposed to be boring or flat. Unassuming or boring characters often have common names.
5. Have Fun With It
If it fits your story, you can have a lot of fun coming up with character names. Thomas Pynchon is the king of strange and funny character names. Here are just a few to inspire you:
- Teddy Bloat – Comic relief in Gravity's Rainbow
- Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke – From Mason & Dixon
- Slab – From the short story, Entropy
And if we're talking about funny character names, we can't leave out The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
- Zaphod Beeblebrox
- Marvin the Paranoid Android
Get creative with your names. Try them on for size. Nothing is set in stone while you're writing, and you'll have time to change a character's name if you don't like it.
6. Use Prefixes and Hyphens
If “normal” names just aren't doing it for you, you may want to try using prefixes and/or hyphens. A character who insists on being called Sir or Mister can be a bit of comic relief, or it can denote their personality. Prefixes can also lend authenticity to a novel set in a different era. Some prefixes you can use include:
- Ms., Mrs., or Mr.
- Sir or Madame
Or you can use suffixes:
- The Third (III)
Likewise, a hyphenated surname (or given name) can help your fictional character stand apart. It's up to you if you want to share the reason for the hyphenation or just leave it up to the reader's imagination.
7. Try an Anagram
Just as there are free character name generators online, there are also anagram generators. All you do is put in a word and the generator will give you several options of words from the same letters.
For example, I just used this anagram generator, putting in the word adventurous. Here are just a few of the names it came up with:
- Aunt Devours
- Autos Verdun
- Dave Outruns
- Davon Suture
- Deva Outruns
- Devon Taurus
- Deuton Varus
- Nova Sutured
8. Use Names With Hidden Meanings
For your main character or characters, a tried-and-true method for naming is all about hidden meanings. You should know a little about the character you want to name, as this will inform the minute or two of research you'll need to do.
An example would be a male character of Latvian descent. This character is a reluctant warrior who discovers his own inner and outer strength as the story goes on. A quick search gives me several options. The one I like best is Arturs, which means “strong as a bear.” For short, I could call this character Art or even Arthur.
You can always pick a name that means something special to you and modify it to fit your story and your character. There's really no limit to character names, although it's usually best to pick names that your audience can read easily.
Character Naming Conventions by Genre
It's also a good idea to look at your genre for naming conventions. Just like it's writer beware when ignoring genre tropes, the same can be said for ignoring general naming guidelines. Not all genres have these guidelines, so we'll discuss the ones that do in this section.
Fantasy Character Names
In the wide world(s) of fantasy fiction, you have the freedom to choose pretty much any name you want for your characters. However, that's what trips many authors up. An abundance of options can be just as paralyzing as a lack of options.
A lot of fantasy has a Europe-in-the-Middle-Ages feel, so if your story is one of those, you could research common names from the various regions that you identify with your story or characters.
And while J. R. R. Tolkien invented languages for his books, he also borrowed some names from old languages, such as Old Norse. Similarly, George R. R. Martin took common Old English names and changed them slightly for many of the characters in his A Song of Ice and Fire series.
The right name should sound right to you. Just make sure it's pronounceable and doesn't have too many apostrophes! You can always use a fantasy name generator to give you some ideas if you're stuck.
Romance Character Names
Romance is a genre that encompasses all manner of subgenres. As such, there are tons of options for naming your characters. Modern romances generally stick with somewhat normal names, based on location and backstory. American characters tend to have American names, and so on.
If you want to get creative and give one or more of your romance characters a unique name, think about why their parents (or parent) gave them the name. Of course, if you're writing a paranormal romance, a less-than-common name may be expected by the reader.
Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense Character Names
Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are two names that come to my mind when I think of mystery, thriller, and suspense novels. Coming up with a good fictional character name for these kinds of novels seems to be overly important, because the name often carries the series. “A Jack Reacher Novel” is a phrase that fills thousands of readers with excitement. Ideally, your character’s name should do the same.
Most of all, the name needs to resonate with you. It needs to be a “strong” name. And there's an argument to be made that Philip is not that. Still, you can start your search with the names of real detectives, spies, or real people who did extraordinary things under stressful circumstances.
Stay true to the era in which the book takes place, and keep the names to one or two syllables, as a start. Shorter names seem to work better in this genre. Miss Jane Marple and Claire DeWitt are great examples of unforgettable female characters in the MT&S genre.
Science Fiction Character Names
Like fantasy, science fiction is a genre with as many name possibilities as you can think of. If your story takes place in the not-too-distant future, you may want to stick close to names that are popular today, while slipping in a few exotic names for good measure.
For stories that take place far in the future, or in a galaxy far, far away, your readers will expect to see some strange names akin to the ones George Lucas gave his iconic Star Wars characters. While Luke is common, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Yoda are anything but normal.
The more alien or outlandish your characters, the more creative you can get. But you'll probably want to stick fairly close to home for your protagonist(s).
Reading is important for writing. Not only because it gives you insights into the mechanics of good writing. It can also give you ideas for great character names. Take inspiration from J. K. Rowling, Charles Dickens, J. R. R. Tolkien, or any of your favorite authors. Think about your favorite characters and consider why their names resonate with you. Then, get to creating names for your own characters.
While you can pick a popular name for a minor character and be done with it, your major characters need a little more care and effort. Hopefully, the tips above can help you find a great name that resonates with you and, eventually, with your legions of readers.