What’s in a name? 8 creative ways to find the name that best fits your character

This is a post by Novel Publicity President, Melissa Storm

Last week, I wrote a post for my author blog entitled “What’s in a name? Our characters’ names matter. Here’s how I chose mine.” I wasn’t expecting a great deal of traffic since the post was largely specific to my own writing, but I was wrong. The post attracted other authors, book bloggers, and fans of my books. I was just blown away by how much people enjoyed a post I was expecting to be mostly ignored.

Well, I heard that message loud and clear. Both writers and readers are interested in how authors name their characters. Accordingly, I’ve adapted my original post to fit the format of the Novel Publicity Free Advice Blog. Here are my tips for naming your characters and a few cautionary notes as well.

1. Babynames.com. This site hosts thousands of names. You can search by gender, cultural background, meaning, first letter—it’s awesome. When I start a new manuscript, I spend hours searching the database. I love assigning names that reflect key components of my characters. For example, the good guy protagonist in my YA novel is named Alex, which means “defender of the people.” I also named a spirit medium Shapri, which means “gentle and friendly mediator.” It’s true most readers will never know the meaning behind the names you pick, but still! One author who pays great attention to what her characters’ names mean is JK Rowling—and who wouldn’t want to be like JK?

2. Google Translate. This is a surprisingly fun tool. Sure, you could stick with common last names that sound nice when tacked on to your protag’s first name, but you can also build in an added layer of meaning by using Google Translate. Is your character a Russian lady who’s overly fond of cats? Why not give her the last name Koshkov? Just use Google Translate to find out the Russian equivalent of cat. If you can’t read Cyrillic, you can listen to the pronunciation of the word. Cat in Russian is кошка (pronounced “koshka”). Next, do a Google search on “Russian last names” and pay attention to the endings. You’ll see that -ov, -in, and –ev are all common suffixes. Add one to the root of koshka, and you’ve got a custom character name. Hooray! Okay, so it helps if you speak the language, but it’s not necessary. I used Russian as an example since that’s a language I know, but when writing Farsighted, I created custom Greek and French last names (Kosmitoras and LaFache), and I speak neither of those languages.

3. True to the character’s background. Each character's background is influenced by several factors. Gender, ethnicity, age, generation, social class—all play a role and need to be accounted for when assigning names. If you are writing a historical novel about a Persian princess, you probably don’t want to name her Latoya or Kyle. It just doesn’t work. Be especially mindful when writing fiction set in an era or culture other than your own. If you aren’t sure whether a name is appropriate, ask someone who would know. For example, I love the name Simran and wanted to assign it to a ninety-year-old Punjabi woman in an Indian coming-of-age story about the partition. When I told this to my husband, he laughed at me for at least five minutes and then said, “You can’t name a Chai-ji Simran. That’s a modern girl’s name.” I acquiesced and decided to give the name to a teenage character in another of my novels.

4. Different, but not too weird. Yes, it’s nice to come up with original names, but if you’re too original, you may alienate or confuse readers. Fantasy and science fiction authors, especially, need to be mindful of this. It’s totally okay to name your character Delton 6XQVR or Shindolianago, but at least give them shortened nicknames like Delta and Shin. Also be careful about using too many alternate forms of a single name. A lot of readers struggle with Russian literature because each character has several different names when you factor in diminutive forms and patronymics. Add flavor, yes, but be sure the reader knows who you’re talking about! I’m working on a novel that features a Hopi boy as one of the main characters. I decided to name him Wikvaya to stay true to his culture and then shortened to Wick as a nickname.  Oh, and be ready for readers to mispronounce the more unusual names. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people pronounce my character’s name Shapri (shuh-pree) as Sharpie (as in the marker).

5. Distinct. If you have two or more characters with similar sounding names, you may get yourself in trouble. Try to keep each name distinct. Some readers confuse my characters Simmi and Shapri because both names start with S- and end in –I. Which brings me to my next point…

6. Be mindful of your sound addictions. You probably won’t even realize you have them until a reader points it out. I like girl’s names that start with S- and guy’s names that include the letter X. I named a character in my current WIP Axel, before realizing that I had taken the name of the protagonist from my other novel (Alex) and just rearranged the letters. Bad Melissa! Needless to say, I am not allowed to use the letter X in character or place names anymore. I’m a recovering X-aholic 😛

7. Poll your friends and fans. I did this, and it was super fun. Not only do you get a wealth of great ideas, you involve your readers and get them excited. What could be better? Try polling your friends in the following way:

  • Describe the character’s personality, appearance, and role in the story
  • Ask readers to make suggestions for names they think fit the profile
  • Choose the top 3-5 names and set-up a poll
  • Encourage your readers to vote
  • The name with the most votes will be assigned to the character.

I did this for the character Ronnie Franklin who is debuting in my next novel. I needed a mean girl name, and, boy, did people have lots and lots of suggestions! As a bonus, I now have a reserve of about 20 mean girl names that I’m assigning to minor characters in some of my other novels.

8. If the name doesn’t fit, change it. Sometimes we try to force names on our characters that just don’t work. This could be because the character changes as he develops during the course of the story or maybe the name was never right to begin with. Don’t force yourself to keep a name that isn’t serving your character well. I changed the name of my protag in Farsighted 3 times before finally settling on Alex. The most important thing is getting it right, not getting it right the first time.

 

[jbox]How do you name your characters? Do you have any other tips? Leave a comment, and let us know![/jbox]

 

Emlyn Chand, President of Novel PublicityAbout this post's author:

Melissa Storm was born with a fountain pen grasped firmly in her left hand (true story). Novel Publicity’s mascot is a sun conure, thanks to her obsession with birds–and she gets to decide anyway since she is the company’s founder and president. Her first novel, Farsighted, won the prestigious Writer’s Digest Self-Published Novel of the Year award in 2012 for the YA category. She now writes most of her fiction under her real name, Melissa Storm. Learn more or connect with her her author website:  www.melstorm.com or via Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Pavarti

Names for Fantasy is such a tricky business. They have to still be relateable but different enough you don’t forget what world you’re in. For Two Moons of Sera, the naming is one of the hardest parts. I had to come up with a first and last name convention and since I have 3 species, need to have the names reflect what society they are from. I agree about the use of nicknames. My main characters are Serafay and Torkek and shortening them to the more intimate names of Sera and Tor make them much more human.

    Emlyn Chand

    Thanks, Pav, and Serafay is such a great name! (As stated above, I love names that start with S)

alberta ross

I use the same methods and oh yes the meanings must match the character even if no one else knows – great post – I havent tried the translation method yet – sounds interesting.

Kira

Great advice, Emlyn! I actually went and looked up the human surname of Clei Vojtĕch. I chose his name because his father was Czech and because it is a name derived from a saint. Wikipedia gave me a great definition of the name: Voj means “war” and tech means “happy” or “eager”. Since Clei gets involved in a war and essentially becomes a warrior, I think it fit well for an accident!

Breeana Puttroff

I had to respond with my absolute favorite website for helping with names. 🙂 http://www.fakenamegenerator.com/ This site will randomly generate first and last names, and you can set it to different country and name sets. The advanced options are fun, too.

Names of main characters get a little more thought than this, of course, and sometimes the site just helps me get ideas when I click “generate” a hundred times in a row. But it’s AWESOME for secondary characters. Sometimes, even the addresses and physical characteristics come in quite handy for minor characters (the checker at the grocery store, or whatever).

Kirstie

I had a lot of fun (and a smidge of difficulty) naming a Japanese character for my novel. Japanese last names are restricted, there are only so many available so you can’t just make something up. Another consideration is the name meaning. You can write out your name in hirigana or katakana (think the alphabet but with syllables) or in kanji (one or two complex characters designed to symbolise an entire word). The meaning of a name in kanji is very important, so I had to trawl through kanji (with which I’m not deeply fammiliar yet) to find a fabulous name meaning for my protagonist. I was lucky enough to find a combination which can be read as ‘link/tie/bond between worlds/places’ which is perfect for a dimension travelling character.

    Emlyn Chand

    I love how much thought you put into it, Kirstie. Kanji is a great name too!

      Kirstie

      Kanji is the name for the single character words the Japanese write sometimes, but you just made me realise I never mentioned the character’s name: Yui Watanabe

Laura Ritchie

Thanks for a fun post!

I wrote half my latest novel while still struggling with a sense of dissatisfaction over a main character’s name. Then one day at work, I heard a customer mention their son’s name, and it was like a lightning bolt struck the top of my head. Even before I looked it up, I knew it was perfect.

And after that… well, I was just very thankful for the find/replace feature in Word!

Laura Ritchie

    Emlyn Chand

    I love ctrl+F! Now you have to tell us that perfect lightning bolt name. Don’t leave us hanging 😉

      Laura Ritchie

      Ah… sorry to be a tease! 🙂

      I had named the boy “Nathan”, but as soon as I heard the mom say the name “Aidan” I knew my search had ended.

Nicole Alexander

Great post, Emily! I’m saving this one in my archives.

Does anyone know of some reliable sites where you can hear character names pronouced? I’m writing Arthurian fiction, so I’m stuck with a lot of names that are strange to the modern American eye/ear/tongue. I’ve found some by Googling the name + “pronounciation”, but not all. Right now I just refer to myself as the writer who can’t pronouce half of her character’s names (or spell, but that’s a different story!)

    Emlyn Chand

    Hmmm, I don’t know about that specifically. I mispronounce character’s names too (even though I’m the one who invented them in the first place) 😛

Courtney

Oh man, thank you so much for this! I love that you included #4 and #6. I’ve seen #4 so many times – you’re writing about a normal high school girl and named your character Yartarzana? – and I just recently noticed how much I do #6! One of my friends had to call to my attention that I had a character named Darren and Aron, which I totally didn’t notice on my own.

Thank you so much for posting this!

    Emlyn Chand

    You’re so right, Courtney! And I thought I was the only one with sound addictions. I’m definitely banned from using the letter X in people or place names from now on 😉

      Kirstie

      Ohh, but ‘X’ is a great way to start a name, though I’m biased because my son’s name is Xander.

Chad Lynch

I use the first three. I also found a sight that goes through the U.S census and randomly matches first and last names. You can set for gender and rarity of the name. Set it at not very rare and get John Smith. Set it for very rare and you get names that you would never think of but they still sound real.

Worked for years at a video rental place. We had file cabinets full of membership cards. Fantastic resource for character names. My absolute favorite was Maynard Nootenboom. The name is all you need to see the character. Now no one use Maynard, he’s mine.

    Emlyn Chand

    Ha, that’s a great idea, Chad! I spend so much time at my local Panera, I’ll probably start naming characters after the various staff members 😛

Layla

The names of my characters usually just come to me naturally.

Behindthename.com is also good… especially for English names.

I also use the translator function on Google. Or I turn a word into an anagram and see if it works like that.

Great post! 🙂

Chad Lynch

Here’s the URL for the random name generator using census information. You can pick how common or rare the names are going to be

http://www.kleimo.com/random/name.cfm

Mary

For Fantasy names they have to “sound” right to me – the names I come up with seem strange to people (and I get many requests for pronunciation) but for me the sounds always manage to reflect the character’s personality in their own weird way.

Emily Reese

Great ideas, Emlyn! I am a huge fan of http://www.behindthename.com which includes tons of history and lets you sort by meaning as well.

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