How to Name Your Characters


There are a lot of things that go into making a good fantasy story and one of the very first things our readers encounter is the names of the characters. We struggle to find the perfect combination of syllabus and letters to make a name that will stick with the readers and be forever attached to your work alone. But it’s really hard to do, and there are a lot of pitfalls.

Most of us have read novels with really cool character names…that we couldn’t pronounce. We stumble over them the first several times, but after that we stop trying, with one of two end results. We either slur the name into something we can remember, or we blank it out every time it’s on the page and think, “that character.” Neither of which is a good thing because we’re then too focused on trying to get through the character’s name to enjoy the story.

So while creating good fantasy names isn’t easy, there are some tried and true methods to the madness. Some use a phone book, especially for last names. I’ve found this to be a good tool for more modern day stories, but not necessarily for fantasy. My personal favorite is a baby names book. I’ve got two that I refer back to time and again, and when I can’t find the right name, I can usually find the right pieces of multiple names to mesh together. Most of the baby name books have alternate spellings as well, which in and of itself is a good way to go. I once wrote a character named Valerye—it’s a real name, but a different spelling than most people are used to seeing, and unusual enough to work without having to be spliced with something else.

Here are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years when it comes to naming your characters.

  • Know thy character

While this is obvious, it’s probably the most important part. Most characters will really come to life when you find their true name. My lead male character from Zoe has been through several names—Tylander, Xylander, Leander. But none of them really fit for the kind of man he was shaping up to be. And then one day, I found his real name, and the pieces of his life are falling into place around it.

  • Name splice

I like taking two pre-existing names and meshing them together. Changing a letter or two can also help blend them. If you choose names that flow into one another though, you shouldn’t have to change much. Take this one, for instance: Nell and Anna becomes Nellana (Nell-aena)

  • Co-characters

Generally you don’t want to give characters in the same story names that look or sound alike. Bob and Bill bouncing back and forth on the page will tire your readers out quickly. But there are exceptions to the rule. In my own novel for example, Zoe’s twin brother is Xenes. Their names both start with the Z-sound, but they’re twins. This is one of those times when you have to understand the rule before you can break it.

  • Name recognition

Bambi was a quiet child with haunted eyes—eyes that no child should ever have to possess. To the passerby, she was a sad mark of—What? No, this isn’t about the deer!

  • Time frame

When writing stories that are based in our world, or even have real world ties, it’s important to match your character year of birth with naming trends. Names come and go in popularity quickly, and while you don’t want to pick a name from the Top 10 of the Year list, you want to keep the time period in mind. The same can be said for your fantasy world. Your character’s mother’s name might have been all the rage when she was an infant, but now is synonymous with something negative, and thus, children are not given that name anymore.

  • Do try generators

When I’m at a loss for creating names, I default to the Internet. Just reading can sometimes give you ideas, but try a name generator is more time efficent. As you’re sifting through the results, remember that you’re not looking for it to present you with the perfect name—you’re looking for that letter pairing that will make your name perfect.

  • Always test

The quickest way to determine if a name is too hard to say is to talk about the story. Tell your friends what you’re working on, ask for their feedback, get them to say the names back to you. If they stumble over them or miss entire syllables, then the name isn’t going to work.

13 thoughts on “How to Name Your Characters

  1. Maggie

    I like to have the character’s name have a special meaning that has to do with the character’s personality or role in the story.

  2. Jennifer M Eaton

    I just read a manuscript with four odd names that all started with “B”. I couldn’t keep the character’s names straight. It was very frustrating. It’s like Sauron and Sauromon. What was he thinking? I was 35 before I could tell them apart.

    I think many don’t really think about their names all that hard. I write fantasy, and I give odd names, but I make sure that they are names that can shorten into something easy, like “Matton” they call Matt. It just makes it easier on the reader.

    1. WhitneyCarter

      I’ve come to the same conclusion–that many writers don’t think too hard about names, especially new writers, and I don’t understand. A name is the first thing my characters need, and if it’s the wrong name, nothing else falls into place.

  3. Robin Hawke

    Sometimes I translate a word like “rain” or “fall” into an obscure language with the help of the internet. Often I have to try several languages plus a little “clean up” spelling, but it has been a useful technique for generating names.

    Robin

  4. Angel

    I realize I’m a little late replying here, but… I happened to be doing a family tree for mine and my husband’s side of the family and found some really cool first names on my side of the family. I swore they were next on the list for my next book to write, lol

    1. WhitneyCarter

      I hadn’t really considered using names within my own family, but that could be because we don’t really have any unusual names. I would think that using a name of an ancestor would be cool though just because you can contemplate what that person might have been like and translate that into the story.

  5. Robin Hawke

    I thought of this post as I walked around a cemetery yesterday….Ada was just one of the names on a tombstone that enchanted me. The marker was modest, with just ‘ADA’ imprinted. The beginnings of a character description could be gleaned from this small clue. (Why all caps? Why no last name? I fell in love with Ada.)

    Robin

    1. WhitneyCarter

      I’m honored that you thought of my post, Robin! And isn’t that just the coolest feeling; meeting someone for the first time and knowing they’re going to take you on an amazing ride?

  6. Pingback: “HYSRT!” or “What’s In a Naming?” « Ever On Word

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