How to Name Your Characters

by The Magic Violinist | 57 comments

Every character needs a memorable name. Your character could have the most interesting personality, the most incredible predicament, and could be forgotten if his name is Bob Smith. You need the perfect mixture of unique and believable.

No ideas? That's okay. Here are five ways to pick out the perfect name.

Hello my name is

Photo by maybeemily

Your name needs to be unique and memorable, but not unpronounceable. Think of some of the most loved book characters you know and keep their names in mind when creating your name. Characters like Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen had great names, but they were easy to pronounce. People remembered them.

1. Think Latin

I often get stuck when it comes to picking a last name. If I find myself reverting to the same three last names, I look to Google to help. Is my character a firefighter? If so, I'll look up the Latin word for fire. There you have it! Jason just became Jason Ignis.

2. Remember Your Friends

I often base my characters off of my friends because my friends are so interesting! When I do that, sometimes my characters end up with my friends' names. Maybe not their exact names, but pretty close. Kirsten will become Kristen, Sophia will become Selena, and Sarah will become Sara.

3. Open Up Your Baby Naming Book

I love baby naming books. I can flip to any random page and find at least one name I like. My favorite find: Clelia. Apparently the name “Clelia” has multiple meanings, but one of them was “victor,” which fit my character perfectly. If you don't have a baby naming book, try looking for one at your local library. There are even some baby naming sites online that will show you the top one hundred most popular names over the years, which can especially help you if you're looking for a popular name from a certain year.

4. Think of Your Favorite Words

A lot of my characters have names based off of words I like. One of my female characters loves astronomy. Her name is Cosmo Moonshine. Also, a rambunctious, adorable little girl character I have is named Chip. Another word I like that could work as a name is Lilac. Think of your favorite words and see how they would work as a name.

5. Create a Theme

Sometimes I'll create a theme for a family. A family with three sisters has the theme “spice.” The girls' names are Pepper, Nutmeg, and Cinnamon. Another family with triplet girls has the theme of “gems.” The girls' names are Jewel, Ruby, and Diamond Sapphire. I even have them wear clothes that match their names (Ruby wears red, Diamond wears white, etc). They also wear sapphire earrings. I'm pretty sure that Suzanne Collins had flowers and plants on her mind when writing The Hunger Games, seeing as her characters were named Katniss, Primrose, and Rue. How about you? What do you do to think of names for your characters?

PRACTICE

Create a character and name them using one of these five methods. Afterward, write for fifteen minutes using that character as the protagonist. Post your Practice in the comments, sharing which naming method you used. Be sure to comment on a few other Practices as well. Have fun!

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

The Magic Violinist is a young author who writes mostly fantasy stories. She loves to play with her dog and spend time with her family. Oh, and she's homeschooled. You can visit her blog at themagicviolinist.blogspot.com. You can also follow The Magic Violinist on Twitter (@Magic_Violinist).

57 Comments

  1. CiCi Lynch

    A majority of the names mentioned are cliche and downright elementary. I would not recommend using Latin to name any of your characters. (Unless you’re writing cheesy fan-fiction, of course!) Most mature writers find that Latin is terribly cliche and a clear sign of Mary-Sue-ness, so they avoid it at all costs. Well, what about themes? Cliche. Don’t do it- it’s sophomoric. Themes are unoriginal and callow. Although Rosey, Violette, and Calamine might seem like the perfect combination for your bubbly, flirty trio of darling triplets, DON’T DO IT. If you do, I can assure you that you’ll have an entire room of well-read scholars giggle-snorting in distaste. Baby naming books, on the other hand, are a fantastic resource. Using simple & clever names is the first step in creating a lovable, indelible character. Instead of naming your charismatic, yet misunderstood, cheerleader “Aystra Felix Starburst”, why not go with “Charley Root”? You get the picture.

    Reply
    • Jay Warner

      Sometimes it’s easier to build your character using a temporary name and then go back and change it to something that fits better later in your writing. The first name chosen is not always the name that I end up using for my characters. I would also like to know more about how some classic characters got their names. “Call me Ishmael” had to come from somewhere. I also think about how sometimes being confusing can work. William Faulkner named two characters “Quentin” in Sound and Fury but one was female and one was male. The male Quentin was the uncle to the female Quentin but this is never directly addressed. You have to keep reading to know which Quentin is doing the talking.

    • themagicviolinist

      (I’ve tried to post this several time and it keeps disappearing. This is @google-3142a41e3aca47b37eea8809a94962fc:disqus).

      I love the name Charley Root! I like names that work on boys and girls like Charley and Alex.

      Yes, I can agree that some of these names are cliche and simplistic, but
      they might work great in, say, children’s books. If you’re writing adult
      books, yes, they probably won’t be as popular. Again, these are all
      just examples of some things you can use.

    • Betsy Kerr

      Ishmael is from the Bible. He was Abraham’s first son by a servant girl.

    • Chibi Taro

      However the Ishmael in ‘Call me Ishmael’ is named after the narrator of ‘Moby Dick’.

    • themagicviolinist

      I love the name Charley Root! I like names that work on boys and girls like Charley and Alex.

      Yes, I can agree that some of these names are cliche and simplistic, but they might work great in, say, children’s books. If you’re writing adult books, yes, they probably won’t be as popular. Again, these are all just examples of some things you can use.

    • themagicviolinist

      (For some reason my first comment disappeared. How bizarre).

      I love the name Charley Root! I like names that work on boys and girls like Charley and Alex.

      Yes, I can agree that some of these names are cliche and simplistic, but
      they might work great in, say, children’s books. If you’re writing adult
      books, yes, they probably won’t be as popular. Again, these are all
      just examples of some things you can use.

    • themagicviolinist

      (For some reason my first comment–and my second comment–disappeared).

      I love the name Charley Root! I like names that work on boys and girls like Charley and Alex.

      Yes, I can agree that some of these names are cliche and simplistic, but
      they might work great in, say, children’s books. If you’re writing adult
      books, yes, they probably won’t be as popular. Again, these are all
      just examples of some things you can use.

    • Giulia Esposito

      I see what you’re saying, but it’s interesting to note that a lot of writers do just this–name their characters after flowers, spices, or even use the same letter of the alphabet if the characters are related ie. Tom, Tyler, Travis.

    • Alex Vogel

      I agree with Cici Lynch. I think this is bad advice, honestly, and I really enjoy a lot of the articles on this blog. I like simple and common names. Jack is a common name, but I love it and though there are a million Jacks in this world, I will never forget the name Jack Torrence. The name doesn’t have to be original. Personally, I am sick and tired of original names. They come off cheesy and callow as you said unless played very, very well and are usually only appropriate for high fantasy or children’s books (Example—Severus Snape). And still, one must be careful. You do NOT want to inspire an eye roll. Once a reader rolls his/her eyes, even once, you are doomed, you’ve lost your credibility. So don’t use funky, “original” names unless you really know what you’re doing. So pick something simple, something that makes sense to the character’s personality, background and ethnicity, a name that the reader doesn’t have to “google” to pronounce. If you are choosing a theme, it shouldn’t be so obvious it is laughable. Think Cosmo Moonshine. That’s almost as bad as Cozy Blanket. Sorry.

  2. R.w. Foster

    The names in one of my books come from a variety of places. My male MC’s name, for example, comes from comics and from liking how one sounded like something else. His name is Carter Blake. The first name is the same as the comic character Hawkman, aka Carter Hol. The last comes from how Blake sounds like flake, which is his initial character trait in my first draft. Imagine my surprise to discover that full name was used in the video game, “Heavy Rain.”

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      Ooh, comic books. I should try that!

      That’s two people now who have had the same name as somebody else. Who would’ve thought?

    • R.w. Foster

      My female MC has a Gaelic first name, and a Dungeons & Dragons style last name (she’s a half-elf): Dearbhaile Galonodriel. I made sure to have Carter ask how it’s pronounced, “Der-vah-lah. Gah-lon-oh-dre-el.” 😀

    • themagicviolinist

      Galonodriel reminds me of Galadriel from Lord of the Rings. I love your name!

    • R.w. Foster

      Glad it does. It was my nod to it. And, also my inspiration. 😀

  3. Felix

    For the most part, this is some of the worst advice I’ve ever seen. If you use a theme, make it less obvious, and not so cheesy. don’t use Latin. Your best bet is to browse baby name books and sites, think about the area your character is in, their ethnicity, their parents, and go from there. “Cosmo Moonshine” is godawful. And Clelia? what happened to easily pronouncable? I’m kind of disappointed TWP let this one in.

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      You’re definitely right about Clelia. I guess her name is kind of hard to pronounce. Maybe I’ll change it later on, but for right now her name works for me.

      Keep in mind that these are all starting points and you can go any way you want with any of these ideas. These are all just examples and there are five different methods you can use. I will agree that a baby naming book is one of the best tools out there for writers.

    • Anna

      I actually believe Latin can be quite helpful in character naming. For example, a girl who lives on the streets can be named Via, Latin for street/road. Or, a character who is a banker can be named Argen, from argentarius which means banker. I think that some Latun words, like venalicius, though, should be avoided. Also, many names have been mispronounced but it doesn’t take away from the start at all, like Hermione from Harry Potter, or Thalia and Chiron and many others from Percy Jackson. I respect your opinion, as some names just should not be used, but I believe this advice is quite good.

  4. Helen Earl

    I’ve used most of these methods at times. Problem with ‘apt for job’ names is that newborns rarely know their career path! Often I’ll trawl the credits of movies & write down interesting names, then mix & match first with last. Attention to ethnicity is important & there are some great sites of names from different nationalities/groups. I’m currently using one for Quechua Bolivians to name my alien race! When I’ve chosen a name for an important character I’ll always Google it to make sure it isn’t anyone famous who may object! My dramatic story at school was laughed at by class because the hero was Robert Moore & Bobby Moore the footballer was popular. I hadn’t connected but readers did. Lesson learned early.

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      That’s a very good point. I like the idea of using movie credits for ideas. I’ll have to try that one.

      Ha! I’ll have to search my characters’ names, then, just in case.

  5. Literati Rhapsody

    Ok so the Magic Violinist has a new fan in me for this post because I’ve been going thru it w/the names lately. One of my problems is the opposite of Jay’s recommendation. Changing a characters name after you’ve started the story proved disasterous for me. A simple name change of Gabriel to Christopher meant I was dealing with a different character. So yeah I’m still fighting w/that one.
    Now I did just complete naming a host of characters for another project. I used google and it took me to the New York & London registry for blah blah blah. Anyway picking the names for the main cast was simple took only a few minutes. However the name for my Protagonist was slightly more difficult. She’s a black woman in 1890 London who clerks for a detective. This one was tricky. But I came up w/the perfect name for her and I’m off an runnin w/this one.

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      I’m glad you found the perfect name! It always feels good when that stroke of genius hits you.

  6. themagicviolinist

    (I’ve tried to post this comment several times, but for some reason it keeps disappearing. This is @google-3142a41e3aca47b37eea8809a94962fc:disqus).

    I love the name Charley Root! I like names that work on boys and girls like Charley and Alex.

    Yes, I can agree that some of these names are cliche and simplistic, but
    they might work great in, say, children’s books. If you’re writing adult
    books, yes, they probably won’t be as popular. Again, these are all
    just examples of some things you can use.

    Reply
  7. themagicviolinist

    (Sorry for the multiple comments! The post keeps glitching and the comments were disappearing. Now they’re all back. LOL).

    Reply
  8. Giulia Esposito

    It’s funny to see which naming method we all prefer. Personally, I hate using the baby name book because I feel like I have too much selection. It also sucks the creativity out of me. Sometimes I look online for names that have a specific meaning, but for some reason, that never seems to help me select names. Generally I tend to go with names I like, or are period specific. For instance. if I’m writing a story that takes place in Regency England, I might use a name like Elizabeth. However, if I want something snappy or edgy, I play around with mixing up words and or names to create something new. Thanks for the tips!

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      No problem! I love the name Elizabeth. I think I’ve used it too much, though, when it comes to medieval fantasy novels.

  9. Jilanne Hoffmann

    Yes, naming is difficult. I think of the grand list of names we came up with to name our son–who remained nameless until the fifth day following his birth. Characters are similar. Sometimes you have to live with them awhile before you know “who” they are and what their name should signify. Sometimes the name comes first and the rest follows.

    My now 9-yr-old son is writing a story about characters named “Shredded Bob n Oats” (a cereal oat square), “Slip n Slobber Shake n Rain” (a drooling St. Bernard puppy), and Milk-waukee McDread (the terrifying bottle of milk). These characters come to life in the dining hall during an overnight school trip. Clearly, this is a children’s story, but it shows how imaginative writers can be when creating their characters—and naming them.

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      I love those names. They’re so creative! Sometimes I write down a list of random names that pop into my head and a character is born from that. Good for your son for starting young!

  10. Karoline Kingley

    Baby Books are my best friend when naming characters. Also, if your book is set in a different time period like medieval, there are name generators online for that. Even if you don’t find one you like exactly, you can mix and match until you fuse the perfect name.

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      I love name generators. I found this awesome one that I normally use for my medieval fantasy books. (http://www.namegenerator.biz/) You should check it out!

    • Karlas

      actually i found a better one, this does have few times bigger database of names http://newnamegenerator.com

  11. Eyrline Morgan

    Right now my character for a preacher’s wife is Mary. I’m just getting to know her and just beginning to realize how to get to know your characters. This will be the longest project I’ve started and hope to write each chapter as a serial. My health is keeping away from the computer much of the time. Now we need to go from Oklahoma City to Waco, Tx. in the morning, as my husband’s brother is in critical condition. “Mary” exemplifies the type of pastor’s wife for my character. The antagonist for the first part of the story is “Mrs. Diggs.” We will be traveling from Oklahoma City to Waco to see my husband’s brother who is in critical condition. We pray he will make it until we get there. We are recuperating from serious illnesses. This may all be part of a story eventually. I tend to use personal experiences rather than my imagination. At my age, There are many experiences from which to draw.

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      Wow! I’m amazed that you can still find time to write with all of this going on in your life. Good for you!

  12. fireinmytummy

    Baby books are great….my script is a period piece and so had to look for popular names in the deep south in the 1920’s. I also like to see how names sound when other characters talk to them/ or about them…..Its one of my favourite parts of writing, like naming a child it is very important

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      Mine, too! My characters are my best friends. I don’t want them to have to live with a crappy name.

  13. Jagoda Perich-Anderson

    I was surprised by just how challenging it can be to name a whole book’s worth of characters. After brainstorming and using sources like baby naming books, I started thinking about my main characters’ ancestry. In my novel, the protagonist’s family is from Spain–ah, that narrowed things down. She kept her maiden name for professional reasons so that became a character trait as well. Another character has Northern European Germanic roots–thus Karlsen, spelled just that way. This process helped me learn more about what makes my characters tick too and that made it a fun rather than laborious process.

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      That’s a good way to narrow things down. I often already have names ready for a few of my main characters because most of the time I get ideas for my books by the character ideas I have.

  14. Tegan VB

    I do enjoy name etymology! Before I started writing my current piece, I researched a whole bunch of names in the language from the location I wanted my story to take place. I love that you can take a meaning of a word, put it another language – and poof! You have a great name. Although I think Dickens really did it best – remember Jerry Cruncher? The grave digger . .. 🙂

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      I know! Latin is only the beginning! You can choose all sorts of languages. Spanish, French, Japanese . . .

  15. Danielle Forrest

    What I like about the baby naming directories is that you can frequently search by country. So, if I’m looking for Irish names for my fiction book on Fae, I can find one. I can even find a name with an embarrassing meaning that will fit perfectly with my main character’s issue with his mother’s constant babying of him.

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      Ha ha! Yes, I like that aspect, too.

  16. George McNeese

    Rain blanketed the windshield of the Impala. The raindrops fell faster and harder; the wipers were useless. Paul played a drum solo on the steering wheel.
    “I knew it. I knew this was a bad idea,” Paul said. His taps transformed to a bang on a horn.
    “Will you relax?” replied Johanna. “And watch the road.”
    “There’s nothing to watch, dear, with all this rain.”
    His nostrils flared. Johanna shook her head and crossed her arms. She belted a sigh.
    “What’s that for?”
    “I told you we should have took Ridgeway. We always take Ridgeway; it saves time.”
    “Yes, and if traffic wasn’t being diverted to Ridgeway, we would be there,” Paul rebutted. So, I thought McIntyre wouldn’t be better.”
    “Well, it’s not because we’re stuck,” Johanna replied. “Can you apologize for getting us lost?”
    “No.” Johanna turned to him in disgust. “There’s no need to apologize. If we were on Ridgeway, we would be stuck, too. And we would be having this same conversation.”

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      There was a nice mix of dialogue and description in this which kept the flow and the rhythm in this piece very nice. One thing that confused me, though, was the last paragraph. I figured out that it was Paul talking in the end, but after “No.” you were showing what Johanna did, which makes it seem like Johanna is talking. Also, towards the end after “Paul rebutted.” there was a missing quotation mark. Nice work! 😀

    • George McNeese

      I see I needed to clarify who was speaking in that segment. Thank you for the comments overall.

  17. Daphnee Kwong Waye

    Great tips! I’ve realised that for me it’s harder to pick up family names than forenames. Strangely, when it comes to my main characters, I don’t need to think hard. Their names just… appear in my mind. As if my characters already actually had a name, as if they were real people.

    http://evilnymphstuff.wordpress.com

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      Thanks! 😀 That happens to me, too. My secondary characters (and sometimes villains) are the hardest for me to figure out.

  18. Christina Chenier

    I’m writing a fantasy novel right now. My main characters are Dashiell and Aurelie. Aurelie is my favorite name. I also like the names Adilade (Adie), Gwendolyn (Gwen), and Genesis (Gen).

    Reply
  19. HRF

    This article gave e some really good ideas! I had never even thought of picking a Latin word! My character’s background is Russian so I went to the translator and found a few last names I could use! Thanks for this!

    Reply
  20. Captain Twig

    I think this may be good base advice. But, honestly, the best advice for names I’ve ever heard is “Ask yourself ‘why did their parent(s) name them this?'” For example, I have a family of characters where the father was a botanist so he named the two boys Lyndon and Glenn. But his name was Gavin, which has nothing to do with plants, because *his* parents didn’t know he was going to be a botanist! If you have a reason for your character to be named, as mentioned above, Cosmo Moonshine, then it is a perfectly acceptable name! (And you can see above that the writer of this article writes fantasy, so Cosmo Moonshine probably fits well in whatever world they live in).
    However, if you pick names that don’t have any reasoning, other than ‘it sounds cool/cute’ then it really isn’t the best of names. Just as having a name that ‘just happens’ to go with their chosen profession isn’t the best of choices, unless it is a family business, like Cobbler or Baker, something that goes back to the time where peoples last names *came from* their job. Same with having a happy child who never cries and is an eternal optimist named Sunny. Parents do not know what their babies temperament, job or skils will be so naming a character after these things is silly, unless you have a reason.
    Anyways. That’s my two-cents. Good base advice, but try also to think of their name from the parents perspective!

    Reply
  21. Leah

    What about a name for a character like :

    Sofia Watson

    Somebody like that; I can imagine them being wise, headstrong, inventive, and witty

    And I don’t really see that name(Sofia/Sophia) being used to often in stories

    Sofia is the name of the Greek goddess of wisdom

    Reply
    • Cait Tucker

      The Greek goddess of wisdom was Athena not Sofia. Where do people find their information?

    • Dennis Briskin

      Close but not quite. Sophia is a Greek word that means “wisdom,” but not the name of the goddess. Look it up.

  22. Leah

    Also, if like to add, Instead of Latin, which is obviously popular, you could do Japanese names, British names, Indian names, or Hebrew names too. There is an awesome we side called 20000 names.com

    Reply
  23. J0SH Chandler

    Wow. This is some of the absolutely worst advice I have come across so far.

    Reply
  24. Star_Girl

    Actually, if you read the Harry Potter books first before you saw the movies, you wouldn’t know how to pronounce Hermione, since it’s written differently, so there’s that. Plus, you don’t want names that are too weird, and Katniss does sound pretty weird, and, if you’re going to either have a kid or write a book, you wouldn’t want a name that is too weird, which would mean that a lot of people would probably roll their eyes and think that the name if very weird, so you might want to reconsider if you’re going to use a weird name. Baby naming websites are actually good for you if you’re going to write a book or have a baby.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

A Shadow Stained in Blood
- Ichabod Ebenezer
Under the Harvest Moon
- Tracie Provost
Box of Shards
- K.M. Hotzel
69
Share to...