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Naming Your Characters: What up, Cornelius?


No Name

Photo by Larry Page (click pic for link(


When I was pregnant, deciding on a name for my son was a highly researched project. I studied name books and the social security lists, said the names out loud, tried to think like a third grader to make sure the name couldn't be turned into something for merciless teasing. I drove my husband crazy.


Now, I don't know if you need to put quite as much time in as I did for my son into your characters' names, but you also should not take it lightly. Names define us and conjure up an instant image.


The name Candy is going to produce a much different image than Francis. A Caleb is very different from a Murray. When people hear my first name, they probably aren't going to picture some elegant debutante, they're going to picture a spunky tomboy (which, in my case, worked because I indeed was a tomboy.) You want your character's moniker to ring true with your reader and produce the desired image.


Some things to consider...


1. Make the name true to the person's age


--You're not going to have a sixty-year old Jayden


--Also, don't show your own age if you're writing YA by naming teen characters Cathy and Deborah and Barbara.


--Go to the Social Security website which will give you the top baby names for each birth year. If your character is 16, go back to that year she would have been born to see what names were popular.



2. Check if the name rolls off your tongue because the reader will be saying it in their head.


--Don't use names that are impossible to pronounce (yes, I'm talking to you you fantasy/sci-fi writers!)


--It's also advised not to use first names that end with S because it causes hissing when reading the possessive form. I’ve broken this one.



3. Avoid naming multiple characters with names that start with the same letter or sound similar because the reader could get confused.


--Billy and Bobby, Jack and Zach


4. Let the name fit the gender.


--Names with hard consonant sounds create a more masculine feel (Jake, Tate, Todd, Kirk) whereas softer sounds are more feminine (Lacey, Alanna, Jennifer).


--One syllable names scream alpha male.



5. Be careful of alliteration


--It can make the name sound silly and contrived. Jenny Johns, Bobby Buckwell


--However, I think this can also work well My hero in Wanderlust is Lex Logan, which I think works for a sexy rockstar.


--And Charlaine Harris has definitely made Sookie Stackhouse work



6. Make it fit the region of the character.


--Where are they from? How would that affect their name?


7. Avoid names that conjure up images of other well-known characters (especially in your genre).


--Don't think you're going to get away with naming a character a Bella for a while.


--This isn't just for books, TV shows count too.


8. Beware the extremely odd name.


--These can annoy people. I personally don't mind a unique name as long as it's not too distracting.


9. Don't fall into stereotypes, but also have the name fit the person's personality and occupation. (Or on the flip side, you can play with it and give a really tough character a dainty name she hates.)


--True Blood is a good example: the name Sookie Stackhouse is fun and perky like the character, Bill Compton is the boy-next door vamp so has an accessible, softer sounding name, Eric Northman is the bad boy and his name sounds more mysterious and tough (to me at least)


10. Don't be afraid to change your character's names if you get halfway through the book and it's not working. That Find/Replace feature in Word is your friend.


--However, try to get it right the first time because even if you tell yourself it's a placeholder name until you come up with the real one, you'll inevitably start thinking of the character as that name and it will be hard to change.


So what are your MC's names? How'd you come up with them? Have you ever read a book that the name was too odd or it didn't fit the character to the point of distraction? 

**Today's Theme Song**
"Say My Name"-- Destiny's Child
(player in sidebar, take a listen)


Reader Comments (29)

As far as naming my kids goes, we wanted names that were different but not weird. Our daughter is Jaden Paige and our son, Emerson Blaine (Blaine was my father in law's name).

I like my characters to have interesting but not weird names and sometimes a name can conjure a specific image and if that's not the image you want for your character, it may be kinda hard to change your readers mind.

I've changed names a few times while writing...or even after something's written. I just changed my MC's daughter's name because when I read an excerpt at a writers meeting, the name was really awkward to read out loud. After that, every time I read it in my ms, it felt awkward! LOL!!

As I said, my daughter is someday there will be a lot of 60-somethings named Jaden!! (The name is much more popular than I ever thought it was/would be when I picked it!) Obviously, it's not right now though :)

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Ooohh great subject for a post!

Well I spent forever over my son's name, too, and he ended up with the very traditional Edward William, although he is called Eddie by everyone. "Edward" is after his paternal great grandfather, who Hubby absolutely adored, and the William is after my maiden name, Williams. The name also means "Wealthy Guardian". I always, always, always check the meaning of names.

My MC in South of Heaven goes by the name of Lola, even though it isn't her real name (names are a theme in the book). She chose it for herself, because Lola means "My Sorrows". The secondary character is known as Silver - also not her real name - which at first seems to be on account of her blonde hair, but you eventually get told the real source of the name.

Names are so important because they are the primary way that readers have to engage with the characters in a book; it doesn't matter how often you tell them that the MC is a hip, cool, 20-something punk rock singer, if you name her Mabel then they're just going to see a short-sighted old dear with her knitting.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGemma Noon

Great tips on names. I struggle with coming up with names. I've tried to use names of my daughter's friends to make sure it fits the age. (She's in high school and since I write YA, this is a great source.)

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusan R. Mills

Great subject. I stress a lot over choosing character names. I read a book over the weekend where all the names drove me nuts (it was fantasy and they were all impossible combinations of letters that I had no idea how to pronounce.) I subscribe to the idea that people should have people names or at least names that are sort of easy to pronounce. I'd much rather read about a character named Bruce than a character named Dapherglithias.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

When naming characters, if I don't want to come up with some offbeat name by myself, I look at the meanings. This most often applies to side characters.

In Lodestar, I did look for names that meant "star" or anything related for my female lead. Then there were others whose names I looked for similar meanings and such. In my fantasy, Oracles Promise, all the gods and goddesses have names that mean something related to what they are deity over. My MC in that one, well the meaning of her name is all-important as it was the spark which began the whole writer process for me. The meaning of her name inspired the entire story and much of the world-building. Everything worked toward making her name have literal meaning in the world of my fantasy. I don't want to give too much away so I'm not saying what her name is.

And I love offbeat names. It's hard for me to write Lodestar where all the characters have normal sounding names. I far prefer Keldene to Derek or Grady.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie L. McGee

My MC's have very normal names--

Crystal Lockhart and Rob Levis

Levis rhymes with lettuce, in case anyone is thinking jeans.

I did put tons of thought into it, but won't go into boring details. Everyone has their own process and mine consists of both extremes. Going crazy researching (as with Levis) to Rob being a name my daughter liked, so I kept it.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTina Lynn

I choose my main character’s names for specific reasons.
In my current work, I needed a traditional name, something of English descent. My MC is Samuel Wesley. I also needed his brother to have a name that could be used three ways—William, Bill, and Billy. Could have used Robert, Bob and Bobby, or James, Jim and Jimmy, but William sounds better with Wesley. The female MC is Marlena—a little unusual but somewhat lilting, maybe even a little exotic.
I had an MC in my YA novel—Xavier. I needed the name to be memorable so that the reader wouldn’t notice the last name, (important to the plot). One of my readers says she stumbled over it every time she read it—how exactly does one pronounce that? I changed it to Ian.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjbchicoine

Ooh great topic! I have always been obsessed with names. I remember always hating my name and choosing the ones I really liked for my characters. I like traditional names personally. Flowery or otherworldly or too-eccentric names are sort of distracting to me, unless of course they fit the character perfectly. (Like "Yvaine" in Stardust or something like that.) You always have such awesome advice in your posts, I learn new things every time I read your blog!

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Dao

It can't be said enough to pay attention to the impact names have on the reading experience. Remember that readers are READING names as opposed to hearing them--so if you have a Bill and then a Jill (or whatever), that's too many ills in there. Also remember that the length of could be jarring--if all the character names are three letters long, then that could be sticky throughout the course of a novel.

And thank you for pointing out the unprounounceable names are uncool. I will put down a sci-fi/fantasy novel if I see a name I can't prounounce. I can't deal with Xghenndyvhhal throughout a story. I need to roll the name around on my mental tongue.

I pay close attention to the letters that start my character's names. My novel's main character name is Robyn and I chose it because I first needed an R name. Rs to me show a certain amount of vim and vigor.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSierra Godfrey

Great post, as usual. I love picking the names for my characters. I do use baby names books to help and the phone book for last names. They are my babies after all.

Thanks for the link.

Lynnette Labelle

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLynnette Labelle

Great topic. One place I get name ideas are from programs at local schools and as a former teacher, from my gradebook. I've changed names of secondary characters part-way through revisions. It definitely takes a little getting used to and ideally I'd like to get it right the first time.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Great post! But first: I really like your son's name AND Roni England looks really cool up there in your sidebar.

I have a warning about Find/Replace: it can do too much. If the name can be a part of a compound word, it can give you weird results. That happened to a crit partner! Spaces before and after may help, and you can verify them one at a time.

You make so many great points! Regarding number one, I've heard agents and editors warn about dated names on young characters. Names are cyclical for sure.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDawn Simon

I LOVE picking character names, just as much as I enjoyed picking my sons' names. (And I'm loving all the references to the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series...a fave of mine!) Great advice all the way around :) My MC's name is Jeannie Franklin. She's a southerner, too :)

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBeth

Thanks for the Social Security link. Great idea! I came up with the main character names for my next book this weekend. Now, I've got to tackle the secondary characters.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJill Kemerer

Another great post. =)
I had quite an issue with names in my current workpiece... I spent an evening looking for old English names (my story is set in 1600 England)... I wanted a last name that sounded big, important and wealthy, and I chose Williams, and a first name that sounded sexy but a bit evil, so I chose Kennyon (or something like that). Those names were perfect for my characters, at least in my opinion.
There are a series of books that play very well with names, ("Evernight"). There is a secondary character named Balthazar who is an ancient, good looking, solemn vampire, so I believe his name is perfect.
Also, the trouble you went through to choose a name for your son was just too funny. I think about that too when choosing a name, and I have chosen my future kid's names like that. =)

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMakita Jazzqueen

Such a helpful post!

Honestly, I really struggle in finding names for characters. I find that I often change them and, even when a story is finished, that I am not entirely sure I am satisfied with it. I think my problem is that I often try to name a character first, rather than find a name that suits him. (Then again, names can also deliberately have a different meaning/connotation than what that particular character stands for.)

I will say this: I never truly considered the thought of geographic names. Good point. If a person lives in a certain area of the United States (or world), their name should reflect that if they are a native. Thank you for overtly drawing my attention to that!

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDawn

I've got two wips on the go. One has MC's Ashleen O'Connor and Ronan Vir, and the other's MC's are Valkrey Nix and Dakota Moon.

Most of my names I pull out of the air. I found some good secondary character names in a magazine at the doc's office.

Unpronouncable, usually fantasy, names drive me crazy. When they're too out there they become symbols rather than words.

I gave my first two boys(Chad & Ryan)names that would be easy to learn how to spell in kindergarten - so they'd look clever right off the bat. lol

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDeb@RGRamblings

Oh, and your sign reminded me that my brother chose his son's name from a highway sign!

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDeb@RGRamblings

Excellent post. Naming characters is sooooo important.

much love

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterstaceyjwarner

Yay! I love this topic. My mc actually has an alliterative name: Laurel Lancaster. I believe I can get away with this since no one else in the book has a last name that starts with the same letter as their first name. Well, except the mc's sister, Laine.

My mc's main love interest is called David Winter. I love that his last name can call up so much imagery - white, snow, cold air or perhaps darkness and blizzards and freezing to death.

Ahh... a rose by any other name...

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmber Tidd Murphy

Stephanie, I know it's strange to think our kiddos names will be the "old people" names one day.

Gemma, I had no idea that's what Lola means. That is what my son calls my mom (his grandma)

Susan, that's a great source for sure!

Natalie, lol, I'm with ya on the difficult names

Stephanie, I think the offbeat names work in fantasy as long as the pronunciation is obvious

Tina, I like those names :)

JB, I like Samuel Wesley,and I don't think Xavier is difficult, it's like the only x name that isn't, lol

Julie, I like your name. :)

Sierra, R names rock, if I do say so myself

Lynnette, yes I've worn out the baby name book

Paul, yes I would think a teacher would have a wealth of names to choose from :)

Dawn, thanks and good point about the find/replace

Beth, that does sound southern, I like it :) and we can definitely chat true blood--I ♥ me some Eric

CKHB, thanks so much for all the great links!

Jill, hope you enjoy the link, i wore it out when i was naming my son

Makita, those are great names and I imagine it's very difficult when writing historical to make sure you have accurate names

Dawn, yeah I find that when I outline I stick to calling my leads MC (main character) or hero, then when i have a better idea of who they are i pick the name

Deb, lol, I'm sure your kiddos looked brilliant :) (ANd I like your character names)

Stacey, thanks

Amber, yeah I have a love for alliteration with names, i think it can work if done right, and my YA hero's last name is Winters--great minds think alike ;)

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

Last names are where I get stuck. Can you do a post about that? I get to involved with ethnic origin and trying to figure out if their names sounds Italian because it should.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

This is great advice. I've probably spent more time figuring out names for my characters than I did naming my children. Somehow, it was less stressful naming my three kids. But at least it's a lot easier changing your character's name. No real paper work required. ;-)

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStina Lindenblatt

I look through baby name websites for first names. For last names, I like to read the credits for TV shows and movies. Wide variety there. That's how I came up with all my characters' last names.

Great tip about Social Security. I never would've thought of that. :)

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbby Annis

I agree with the rest... excellent topic! And a problematic one for me. :-(

My MC's name is Devi (pronounced "Davey"), but most readers hear it differently (like it rhymes with levee), which is okay, except that one beta said it reminded her of the "Devil" - and THAT is not good.

I'm not sure what to do because I love the name so. I knew a girl named Devi in high school - her parents were influenced by Eastern culture, as was my MC's father. I've decided to keep the name until an agent or editor suggest otherwise.

November 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Martone

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