24 May 2014

Choosing Character Names: Fun, or a Total Nightmare?

Character names can be tricky fishes. Occasionally you'll think you've got the perfect name for your protagonist, only to get halfway through a story and realise that the name no longer suits them. Names can be used to stunning effect, evoking images, sounds, and even themes. They can hold meaning, both hidden and obvious, or they can be so generic that they don't stand out at all.

But it's a fine line between picking a name you want, picking a name that fits the character, and picking something that's not going to jar or distract readers.

We're often advised to avoid names that are too out there, absurd or overly complex, and just plain impossible to pronounce. But occasionally a story will call for the wacky. A good example of this is Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where you can find names like Zaphod Beeblebrox and Slartibartfast. And that's OK, because it's a space comedy whose ethos is the pointlessness of trying to make an impact in an unfathomable universe--absurd names are the least of these characters' problems. The thing is, those names probably wouldn't work so well in a contemporary romance or a period drama like Downton Abbey.

And then there are names that try just a little too hard to make the character sound cool or edgy. If you're writing an action thriller, calling your ex-marine protagonist Rock Stoneblast might draw more snickers than anything. Actually, a while back Sky compiled a list of 20 Mental Movie Monikers, worth checking out for the lols.

Sci-fi and fantasy fall victim to impossible character and place names more often than most other genres. This is where you get your L'kazyx'hiqxues from planet Xzerquee'h'ex or somesuch (which is probably in the Pzzy'awxze'a galaxy). These monstrosities can be enough to make a reader quit early on. There's also the issue of people who read out loud to themselves or read stories to other people, and don't forget audiobooks.

When I pick names for my characters, the first thing I do is check their meanings on Behind the Name, just to make sure I'm not making any unintentional faux pas. The nerd in me quite likes it when an author gets clever with name meanings. You never know, there might be a reader who looks it up and is surprised to find the meaning has a connection to the characters' backstory, attitudes, etc.

You also need to be mindful of when your story is set and which names were popular at the time. Putting a Beyoncé in 17th Century rural England probably won't fly with the history buffs. ;)

There are tons of excellent sources for names, if you're really stuck. With a little patience, you can generally find good stuff in the phone book, movie or TV show credits, even graveyards (creepy, I know, but sometimes you have to get creative!). And there are the online venues Baby Names, The Internet Surname Database, Random Name Generator, as well as Behind the Name (linked above). And a silly one, Name Generator Fun.

So how do you go about naming your characters? Do they walk into your head fully formed with a name, or do you begin with a name and build the character around it? Do you struggle to find fitting names for your chars? Have you encountered any memorable names from books/TV/movies that you want to share? I'd love to hear them!

(This entry was originally written for and posted to the Get Your Words Out community on LiveJournal.)


  1. I find it difficult to choose character names but what I usually end up doing is just picking something and go with it. Often a character will start to inhabit the name and it'll begin to sound right, if it doesn't I'll change it.

    I too like clever names, particularly hononyms, when other writers use them but I can rarely bring myself to do that because it always seems too obvious. A few years ago I wrote a story where I wanted to call the main character Terra but I thought it was too much. Now I see Mitch Benn has a book called Terra with a character called that so maybe I was being too self critical. Maybe I'll finish it and call her Hora instead.

    I also use the same names over and over again. They're just names I like usually. Be warned though, if you do this and you have children, you might find you've used up all your favourite names and they now have connotations you don't want to impose on your offspring!

    1. Ah yeah, sometimes you just have to go for what you want anyway, because someone else will eventually use it (this goes for whole plots, too), especially if you feel it fits your character. I like both Terra and Hora, but if you really want Terra, then go for it!

      Ha! That's why I'm keeping Ruby firmly away from all my stories. :) I find certain names pop into my head more often for bit-part characters, rather than main characters. For some weird reason, whenever I'm looking for a minor female character name I always hit Sally first, even though Sally isn't really a name I love all that much (it's not bad, but it doesn't do anything special for me).

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