Skip to main content

How to Give Your Character the Perfect Name

What you call your characters could influence your readers’ perceptions of them. Here are some factors to consider in finding the perfect match. by Devyani Borade

"Once upon a time,” I begin my story, “there lived a king whose name was …” Here I stop. Henry? No, too common. John? Too short. George? Nah, I keep misspelling it while typing fast. Besides, why am I limiting this to English names? The story certainly doesn’t require it.

Let’s begin again. “His name was …” Mbwango? Hmm, a bit of a tongue twister. Kwon Yun Ming Chan? Too long. Muhammad? Not exclusive enough, too prolific and popular. Dmitri? Suddenly I’m trying too hard—and am still stuck on the first page of what was supposed to be my masterpiece.

One of my major problems when writing any story isn’t the plot, the personalities, the setting, the tone, the language. No, the point at which I stumble is far more superficial: names. With stories based on incidents from my life and the real world, I like my characters to have ordinary names—but not names so common they take away the unique flavor of the work. I confess that most times I solve this problem by, well, procrastination: I write in a first-person narrative so that I don’t have to worry about naming the narrator until the fifth page or so. By this time the story has usually come to
life and taken the decision out of my hands. But when a story lends itself to third person, I’m nearly always stymied.

“There’s really no simple answer,” author Jonathan Kellerman says. “Rarely, I engage in a pun—for example, the manic-depressive Richard Moody in my novel Blood Test. But more often, names just float into my head. After 32 novels, I’ve ‘created’ thousands of characters, so the challenge is not to duplicate.”

Bestseller David Baldacci says he doesn’t have a set formula. Author Debby Holt doesn’t, either. “I don’t find it difficult to choose names for characters. They seem to arise quite naturally,” Holt says. “I suspect many of them are influenced by people I’ve known. For example, in my latest novel, Recipe for Scandal, there is a young woman called Hannah who is not unlike an old school friend, Hannah, of my daughter. On the other hand, another character in the same book is called Alberta to illustrate a quirk of her mother, who named her after Albert Camus. So there are no hard and fast rules.”

Other authors opt for more meth-odical approaches. Jeffrey Archer, for instance, watches the credits at the end of films. “Or I might see a surname I like in a newspaper. I keep them all on a list,” he says. “Then, when the time comes to begin writing, I’ll look back at that list and pick out the ones that best suit the characters.”

British comedy writer David Nobbs employs a similar technique. “I occasionally use, for surnames, names of places I’ve been to, or of people I know, or of names I’ve seen on businesses and shops, and once or twice I’ve used a few names from the worlds of football and cricket—two sports that I love. But in the main they just seem to come to me, and people seem to think that I have a good feel for them.” Nobbs admits, though, that he sometimes has trouble with given names. “Christian names are more difficult. In books you have to be careful not to give the wrong impression of a person; the Christian name will be part of the information the reader uses to form his or her own picture of the character. Also, Christian names are heavily influenced by fashion, and one has to get that right for the age of the person.”

Beyond advice from some of the most popular names (pardon the pun) in the writing world, another avenue worth exploring is the breed of websites like babynames.com and babyhold.com. You also might try adding the suffixes “-son” and “-man” to common nouns to create passable Anglo-American surnames. (For example, “car” and “-son” makes Carson.) If all else fails, pick the first name of your favorite author and the last name of your most hated editor and combine the two. (Anyone for Tom Kest?)

With my king still nameless, the go-to method I eventually invent for myself is somewhat more unconventional. Eyes closed, I randomly open a dictionary. Then I run a finger down the middle of a column while mentally keeping a beat, and stop at the count of six. (Why six? Because on this occasion, my story has six characters.) “Macamba: (n) Tropical American feather palm having a swollen spiny trunk and edible nuts.” Interesting.

I repeat the process and come up with “Tabes: (n) Wasting of the body during a chronic disease.” Ah, just sublime. Then I switch the last letters. Et voila! Tabea Macambs. Pretty exotic, eh? Satisfied, I concoct five more names similarly. My foolproof system of nomenclature works perfectly each time. I return to my story and go on to spin a complex yarn involving cryptic clues, mysterious missions, dangerous villains, beautiful damsels, deceit and daredevilry. I’m so elated with the outcome that I lose no time in submitting the manuscript to a magazine.

Back comes the prompt reply: “We like your story and could potentially use it. Would you be open to making a few minor changes—specifically, the names of the characters?”

Sigh. Sometimes you just can’t win.

Need more advice on naming your characters?
Consider:

The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook

Save 10% off this Book:
Become a WD VIP member and get a 1-year pass to WritersMarket.com, a 1-year subscription to Writer's Digest magazine and 10% off all WritersDigestShop.com orders!Click here to join.

Image placeholder title
Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character give or face an ultimatum.

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia Beach was friend to many writers who wrote what we consider classics today. Here, author Kerri Maher shares six things everyone should know about her and Shakespeare and Company.

How Writers Can Apply Business Tools to Their Writing

How Writers Can Apply Business Tools to Their Writing

Author Katherine Quevedo takes an analytical look at the creative process in hopes to help other writers find writing success.

Nick Petrie: On Following the Most Compelling Story

Nick Petrie: On Following the Most Compelling Story

Award-winning author Nick Petrie discusses how he listened to the story that wanted to be told in his new Peter Ash thriller novel, The Runaway.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 596

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a punishment poem.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: On Forgiveness in Fiction

Jacquelyn Mitchard: On Forgiveness in Fiction

Award-winning novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard discusses the chance meeting that led to her new novel, The Good Son.

Sea Bound

Sea Bound

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, write about someone connected to the sea.

writersMarket_wd-ad_1000x300 (1)

Get Published With the Latest Market Books Editions

Get published and find more success with your writing by using the latest editions of the Market Books, including Writer's Market, Poet's Market, Guide to Literary Agents, and more!

Michigan Quarterly Review: Market Spotlight

Michigan Quarterly Review: Market Spotlight

For this week's market spotlight, we look at Michigan Quarterly Review, the flagship literary journal of the University of Michigan.