How to Find the Right Names for Characters
Finding the perfect name for a character can feel like an opaque process. When you’re
first starting a story, you may only have a vague idea of what a character is about.
You may have a few descriptors in place, but you’re still not sure about the character's
appearance, backstory, or a unique abilities. And yet, having a name that is as close to accurate as possible is worth aiming for, because the name can help you to shape the character as you go along. Changing the name of a main character after you’ve written a lot about him or her can be disorienting for a writer and can throw the creative process off-track. How do you even find a name? How can you be sure a name fits? Here are some strategies that I have found helpful.
1. Keep a file of names. Keeping a file folder of names that sound interesting and
evocative can save a lot of time. I add to that file folder whenever I come across a name that piques my interest. Then, when I'm trying to invent names, I refer to the file and see whether any name in it fits the character I'm trying to create. Ready-made
compilations of names go into the file, including small telephone directories (especially
those from organizations such as schools or businesses), along with
programs and playbills from events such as music concerts, sports events,
2. Keep a few different baby-name books up on your shelf – including
outdated ones. Many baby-name books will give the history and meaning
of the name, as well as the nicknames that can be derived from them, along
the variants in other languages. You can search online, but actual books allow
you to page through and discover names that you would not have found
otherwise. Vintage baby-name books are handy if you’re writing historical
3. Consider using place names. Place names are an instant way to add cachet and geographical identity to a character. Think of the British surnames of York, Windsor, and
Hampshire – all place names. The same holds true for other countries: Lucca,
Santiago, Trujillo, Aden, Toulouse, Montserrat. If a place name sounds
suitable but you’ve never seen it used as a person’s name, go ahead and use
it. A standard atlas will give you lists of countries, provinces, cities, and
regions for a quick and easy perusal for something that fits. Also consider
names of rivers, mountains, deserts, and forests.
4. Noun names are visual and versatile. You can name characters after any thing: gems, colors, building materials, cars, plants, flowers, foods – the list is endless. Because nouns are
concrete, they conjure images in the readers’ mind that can associate your
character with some essential quality.
5. Compound names can be effective. Compound names are another way way to give insight into the character. Using compound names, whether a first name plus a
surname, or just a compound surname, is something that many authors use
to great effect. J.K. Rowling is a master at the first-name-plus-surname in the
Harry Potter series -- Luna Lovegood and Silvanus Kettleburn are but two examples. C.S. Lewis uses compound names in The Screwtape Letters; in addition to Screwtape, there is Wormwood, Toadpipe, and Slubgob.
6. Translate it. Any noun or adjective can be translated into another language,
and that can then become the name of your character. In my short story "Repentance" (published in this collection of short stories) one of my main characters is named Dottie Luger. “Luger”means liar in German. “Dottie” is a slang term in English for someone who is slightly insane or eccentric. This is an appropriate name for a woman who has lied about her past,
and who is not altogether sane. A name-in-translation serves two functions:
It gives your character a certain flavor that is associated with the language,
and it makes the name itself less obvious and clichéd. Naming a pub “L’Auge”
raises it to a more sophisticated level than just calling it “The Watering
Trough” (although the English version might be the better choice, depending
on what you are trying to achieve).
7. Consider names that challenge or invert the reader’s expectations. Imagine a romance novel in which there are two male protagonists: Norm Schwartz
and Brad Thorne. There are also two female protagonists: Bertha Kludd and
Arianna Styles. You would think that the two glamorous characters are Brad
and Arianna. But what if everything were reversed so that Norm and Bertha
were the glamorous ones, and Brad and Arianna were the socially awkward,
unpopular ones? Graham Green uses mis-naming effectively in “May We
Borrow Your Husband?” – a short story that is both a comedy and a tragedy.
One of the main characters is named Poopy, and she is a young, beautiful,
bride from an upper-crust British family. When the narrator (a middle-aged
writer who falls in love with her) asks why she is named Poopy, she replies:
“It’s just what I’ve always been called.” Her response reveals an uncritical
acceptance of a vulgar name that is at odds with her refined
appearance and behavior. Her real name is never revealed, and this is
perfectly in keeping with the things-are-not-what-they-seem nature of the
The ability to choose an accurate name for a character will help your story get off to
a good start, and it will help you, as a writer, stay on track. Put serious thought into what the name should be, but don’t let it consume all your writing time. Using the shortcuts mentioned here should save time and enable you to find a name that is both memorable and effective.