On Naming


Confession: When I first started writing, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the names I chose. For my first romance novel I named the hero Cole and the heroine Cassandra and I didn’t bother to check whether those names even existed during the time period when the story was set (mid 19th Century South East). All I knew was that I’d read an article about how “strong” romance hero names tended to be “strong sounding” with lots of hard consonants and sharp looking letters. And yes, that’s how I chose the name Cole.

My next two novels both had protagonists with the name Katie. Apparently me and about a million other chick-lit authors all fell in love with that name at the exact same time.

Later, when I sat down to write The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I began with that same laissez fair attitude toward names. The main character’s name was easy: I knew she was the heroine of the story and she grew up in a very religious community and the name Mary — simple, straightforward, laced with meaning — seemed perfect for her. I chose Travis’s name because I’d once had a crush on my friend’s older brother with the same name and I chose Harry because Harold never really sounded like a heroic name to me.

It didn’t occur to me until too late that much of the plot centered around whether Mary marries Harry which is just annoying repetition (especially when read out loud).

But then as my cast of characters grew, I began to develop “rules” for the names I chose and this is when I found a true delight in naming my characters. I found I could pepper the story with clues and easter eggs for the savvy reader.

That’s when I realized that rather than choosing names because they’re fun or the first things to pop into my head, I could imbue more meaning into the story by the name choices I made. Of course, this can often make picking names a much more consuming process (I was waffling on one character’s name up until the book was sent to the printer). But in the end, I think it’s worth it, especially since I enjoy the process!

Below I’ve listed a few things I consider when choosing character names:

1. Think about the community you’re creating and how names fit into it (i.e. The child of religious fundamentalists might have a different name than the child of hippies). If you’re writing a historical, make sure the name you choose actually existed at the time (in both time and place). You can do this by searching through old records (I *highly* recommend the Social Security database that records names by popularity for the last 132 years), borrowing from period novels or historical characters, or just googling the names you like to find their origins.

2. Be aware of how difficult-to-pronounce names might make it tough for the reader to remember or to even talk about with friends. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t choose a name that fits just because it might be difficult, but at least be aware of the issue (and perhaps figure out a way to slip in a pronunciation if possible).

3. Pay attention to repetitions among names. A lot of readers use visual memory with names in that that they don’t pronounce the name in their head as they read it but rather recognize it as a distinct collection of letters. So, two names that might sound very different — Michael & Michelle or Fiona & Diana— could be confusing because they look very similar on the page.

4. In the same vein, look at whether you have diversity in the number of syllables, in the starting letter, in the ending letters, in the middle letters and in the pronunciation.

5. Think about how characters might shorten their names — are they likely to choose a common nickname or something different and unique? Do they go by their last name instead?

6. Be aware of reader expectations (and how those can change). There are some names that are so loaded they can be difficult to use without a compelling reason (ex: Adolf) and other names that take on meaning based on historical events (ex: Katrina). This can also work in your favor — many readers will have a warm spot in their heart for a Calvin because of Calvin & Hobbes.

7. When considering unique names — perhaps for something set in the future or on a different world — I always remember this tidbit from Scott Westerfeld:

But Uglies takes place 300 years in the future. Names probably won’t be the same as now. So I needed something that’s not a current name, but that doesn’t make your brain fritz when you read it. So I chose a regular word in English.

That’s right: “tally” as in “count.” As in “Hey, Mr. Tally-man, tally me bananas.”

Thus, the little spell-checker in your brain doesn’t ping every time your eyes scan across those letters. (And the real-world MS Word spell-checker doesn’t draw a squiggly line under it.) “Tally” is capitalized, of course, so you know it’s a name, but otherwise “tally” reads as a perfectly normal word.

But not too common.

You can read the rest of his advice here.  I also think you can accomplish some of the same goals by slightly changing the spelling (which is how I came up with Annah and why I shortened Gabrielle to Gabry).

8. Have fun with meaning. I’m surprised by how much I’ve gotten into the meaning behind names and how much fun it can be! For example, in one short story I needed two names for two friends who play a minor role in the plot and I chose Ruth and Ami — both meaning “friend.” On the other hand, one of the characters in my first book is named Tabitha, also the name of a woman raised from the dead in the Bible, which is a bit of foreshadowing for my own character.

So those are some things I consider when choosing character names, I’d love to hear other thoughts/advice in the comments!


14 comments to On Naming

  • Another thing I consider when naming characters is how that name will be used by different social groups. Parents, friends, best friends, and work associates will all use names differently.

    Katherine to mom and dad, Katie to friends, Kat to best friends, and Kathy to people from work. Then there’s derogatory versions by people who don’t like them.


  • Naming characters is the most important thing for me, for the beginning of character development. When I chose Jane Yellowrock, it was originally Jane Doe, which I never do to characters. But the name started something spinning in my mind, and the idea of a feral child, no name, with a clear and violent history written on her body in scars, popped up immediately, and her history followed, as if gifted to me. It isn’t always like that, of course. But it’s cool when it is!

    I love the ethnic name sites online, too. Fun!

  • The child of religious fundamentalists might have a different name than the child of hippies

    *raises hand* Yep. Child of hippies here. Though it was my middle name, Sheana, that took the brunt of it. And my sisters got it worse. 🙂

    I like the idea of basing a fantasy character’s name on a real name/word.

  • I recently renamed one of my main characters from Jadis to Vesper because I realized I was writing the story in third-person limited and seeing her name in the possessive “Jadis’s” (not to mention, saying it aloud) just made me cringe. Thanks for the great points, Carrie 🙂

  • I’m still struggling with the names of two characters in one of my stories, because both names are *perfect* for the characters, yet they look too similar on paper. sigh…

    For a WIP set in the future, I also (like Westerfield) needed names that *sounded* like names we know today, but weren’t. What I did was consider my friends’ names (I looked through my address book and Facebook friends list) and think about how they could be changed, by altering the spelling, adding letters, etc.

  • I find gender neutral names rather interesting, as well as names that cross that gender line. Dante, Harper, Dori(e), Jess. IMHO, they give the protagonist a certain strength of character.

    I’ve actually chosen the name Sam (Samantha) for my protagonist because of that.

    Family first names are also interesting, as that allows you to use names not common for the era.

    And there are names that a character may choose, or that may be chosen as nicknames for them. Trouble (ne Indial) from “Trouble and Her Friends” for example.

  • I have 2 rules, the rest is up for grabs.

    1 – Never choose a name ending with an ‘s’ – as Raven rightly pointed out above.
    2 – Save every typo. I have a list of fantastic names that came directly from or evolved with a little creative meddling, from typos.

    Announcement: My first book was released yesterday, as an eBook, with print version available in about a week – beside myself with excitedness I am.

    Here’s a link if you’ve a mind to check it out.

  • I just realised that my rather archaic phrase ‘if you’ve a mind’ could be misinterpreted. I’m fairly certain most people have minds. I meant ‘if you’d like to have a look’

  • I totally agree with picking names that don’t all look the same. I didn’t ever finish the Silmarillion, and sometimes I think it is because EVERYONE’s name started with T or TH, and I had no idea who anyone was. 🙂

    Sarah and I chose names, I think at random. We chose Deor for our main character because that way we could have her named after the Anglo-Saxon poet. Rafe, another MC, came from somewhere in my subconscious. I remember calling her and saying “I have an idea for this character, his name is Rafe, please don’t make me change it!!” Our character “Geoff” we named after Chaucer, though he little resembles him now, if he ever did. Genevieve we picked because it was close to Gueneviere (and so is she, sort of). In my own work, I chose Mary because she’s a Catholic, (now lapsed) and I play with the “Hail Mary” in the title of my book and in the characterization of her (Mary mother of God, Mary Magdelene, etc.) In my newest, I picked the name because it just sort of showed up in my head. Cassie, short for Cassandra. I imagine that premonition and no one believing her might show up. All my names are pretty literary.

  • Razziecat

    Fun post! I just bought a new copy of a baby name book that I’ve had for many years – the old one is falling apart. I tend to choose names based on the sound and the meaning. Names come to me sometimes when I’m daydreaming. I mess around with spelling, inflection and so on until I’m happy with it. In my head, the name sparks the character into life, so I have to think very hard about changing a name once I’ve become comfortable with it – a name change can literally change who the character is. I had one amusing problem when I named a character Gerat and set my computer to accept the word. My sister, who sometimes uses my computer, was very puzzled when the computer kept changing the word “great” every time she typed it, to Gerat. I had to change the spelling to Gerrat to fix that! 🙂

  • Names have to sound right to me – if they don’t sound like their culture, their world, and the personality of the character, I just can’t stand them. Occasionally, I go with a jarring name because the jar is significant. My MC is called Harvey. She’s a woman, but her proper name is Hervor (an ancient Viking name) and no one but her old father in law uses it. For her, I like the incongruity of a harsh, old fashioned man’s name for a woman – she’s a tough woman raised in a violent man’s world and she fighting her own identity throughout the book. Harvey fits her.

    I have a special peeve against names that don’t appear on the page the way they are supposed to sound. For example, I know a woman named Sug. To my eye that rhymes with slug. In real life, she’s southern and it’s short for Sugar which suits her beautifully, but on the page the word is ugly looking and ugly sounding. If I wanted to convey on a page the same thing her nickname is meant to convey, I’d call her Honey or pick a name that just sounds sweet.

    @Raven – so glad you changed Jadis to Vesper. Did you know Jadis is the name of the evil queen of Charn in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew? Sigh. I like the sound of the name, but I’ll never be able to use it myself because of the associations.

  • Jeremy Beltran

    I really love naming my characters though sometimes the name itself takes on a life of its own. The protagonist of my current WIP’s name started as Parthalan Nathaniel Croccifixio Arcangelo. I even wrote a bit of a tirade in first person pov regarding his name and how he came by it. The characters personality changed so the name changed. I dropped it to Nathaniel Arcangelo, with most people calling him Archangel. As I delved further into the character and who he is meant to become I’ve changed his name again to Azra Arcangelo. Im still working on a middle name that Ill want to keep, something a bit more normal. Though his adopted family calls him Malak, of course thats Arabic for Angel which for those who would know is a bit redundant.

    This is the first character that I’ve created where the name ran away from me. Though I knew little about this character before I tried to name him. Normally I have more to go on, but sometimes I start with a name and build a character around it. With Archangel I want everything to fit perfectly so Its taking longer.

  • I spend way, way too much time working on character names, for many of the reasons you mention here. I love naming characters, and often find myself searching for a name for a minor character and finding names that are “too cool” for someone who is only in a scene or two. Those names I jot down and save for people more central to some future story. Fun post, Carrie!

  • lol David — I’ve done that before where I’ve come up with a cool name and thought “do I want to waste it on a minor character?”

    And thanks y’all for pointing out all your thoughts and resources for names — I never thought about how a typo could lead to an interesting name but that’s such a brilliant point!