Writing Tips: Naming Your Characters

29 Apr

2 days until the Minutes Before Sunset release! I’m feeling pretty supercalifragilisticexpialidocious about it all 😀 [And definitely not sleeping due to excitement] And I have one more announcement!

Minutes Before Sunset will be available as an e-book through Barnes & Noble and Amazon for $6.99 on May 1st! Please help spread the word :] The first day of sales is often the most important, and I really appreciate everyone who’s helped (and encouraged) me on here, Facebook, and Twitter. 

I’ve also received an author review for Minutes Before Sunset: “An exciting mixture of paranormal, romance, and page-turning action. Can’t wait to see book 2.” – Raymond Vogel, author of Matter of Resistance, a YA Science Fiction novel.

And the first chapter was published in The Corner Club Press yesterday! You can open an online version of it by clicking here. And congrats to the founder, Amber Forbes, who has signed her novel, “When Stars Die.” (I’ll be doing a piece on her soon, so look out for this emerging young author!)

But onto the writing tips !

Characters names are really important, and choosing them can take hours if you’re not sure why you can’t pick one out. So I’ve made a list of things to consider when naming your characters, along with websites to look things up in.

1. Time & Culture

This is the basic rule: Is it believable that your character’s parents would name them something within the setting’s restrictions? Of course, there are exceptions (especially within nicknames, which is another thing completely.) But consider the year. 1880 is going to be VERY different from 2030. If you want, you can actually look up popular names through the years at SSA, [Social Security Association.]

This is what my life has been like the past few weeks. Never ending. But minus the summer. [No complaints] I love being able to do what I love every day.

This is what my life has been like the past few weeks. Never ending. But minus the summer. [No complaints] I love being able to do what I love every day.

2. Unique and Memorable

You don’t want repetitive names or sounds. Of course everyone knows not to use names already used in very famous novels, but what about within your own book? You probably don’t want to name everyone with a “J” name. It’d be hard to follow Jack, John, Jared, and Jill around. Or even if all the names are very strange. I’d also consider the rhythm of couples (or protagonists in general.) Try to make them sound good together. The exception happens within relationships. If you have two brothers, having their names be similar is easier for the reader to follow.

3. Mixing Names (Sci-Fi)

I really believe science-fiction needs to have interesting names (along with most genres), but names that the eyes won’t struggle with. Unique names need to be considered very carefully, because you don’t want a reader unable to converse about your novel because they can’t say what they read.

As a personal example, Minutes Before Sunset is a paranormal romance. My characters have two names, one when they’re humans, one when they’re in their shade form. So their human names are very simple, while their shade names are more complicated and/or exotic. That way, it’s easily distinguishable:

Eric Welborn – Shoman

Jonathon Stone – Pierce

James Welborn – Bracke

George Stone – Urte

4. Names and Last Names

Remember most parents use iambic pentameter for names. The rhythm should work. On top of that, you can consider naming a character after another character. (A son may be named after his father or grandfather.) An example: In Minutes Before Sunset, Eric’s middle name is his father’s first name.

I also considered their last names very carefully. My protagonist, Eric Welborn, is born into a prophecy he cannot understand nor agree with, yet his last name insinuates he is “well born.” That is how it was created. (And it’s a real last name!) Jonathon Stone is Eric’s best friend. His last name is Stone, because he changes personalities the most when he transitions from human to shade. Stone, again, is used more for irony or, perhaps, a reality they have yet to see.

5. Where you can find them

There are many places you can go to inspire names.

  • Pick up an old yearbook. You’ll be surprised how many different first and last names (along with rhythms) you can find. However, I suggest not using a person’s exact name, but rather use it as a reference. Maybe a first or a last.
  • Babynames.com provides thousands of names within cultures, meanings, genders, and more. You can even save your favorite names as you skip around. (Although don’t be surprised if people ask you why you’re looking up baby names in public. ha.)
  •  Last Name Meanings provides a list of last names and where they derived from, along with the meaning behind them.

A mixture of all these things creates a list of believable characters, and I really hope you’ll enjoy playing around with names more than before! Join me on Facebook and ask questions anytime you want!


May 1: Minutes Before Sunset Release Party! (a.k.a Dancing around with Bogart)

47 Responses to “Writing Tips: Naming Your Characters”

  1. Janice Seagraves April 29, 2013 at 1:33 am #

    Congratulations on the new book. I wish you many sales.

  2. Andrew J. Stillman April 29, 2013 at 1:34 am #

    Of aaaaaaaall of the name basis I tried to use for ideas, I never ever thought of a yearbook. You, my friend, are brilliant.

    • Shannon Thompson April 29, 2013 at 8:48 am #

      Shucks. Thanks for the compliments!
      Being a packrat comes in handy :]

  3. Shinashi April 29, 2013 at 2:26 am #

    Because I and my brothers and sisters mostly have unique (or extraordinarily apt) names, and my love for different languages, I’ve been fanatical about naming characters with any piece of fiction I write. I actually enter a kind of meditative slump after naming really important characters. That also might be a reason why so much of my fiction have so many characters. >.<

    And babynames- or any site with name origins- are like dear friends who want me to leave them alone. c:

    Has anyone ever said you smile like Emma Watson?

    • Shannon Thompson April 29, 2013 at 8:49 am #

      I love unique names! I think they’re great :] (probably because I come from a family with fairly plain names–Thompson’s and Smith’s.)
      And, actually, yes. Lol. When Harry Potter first came out, a lot of people thought we looked a lot alike (my hair was crazy frizzy like her character’s, and we were the same age.)

  4. theparasiteguy April 29, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    Ah, babynames, how I love ye…

    Also, great excerpt. You’ve got me really interested now, but my reading backlog is already heaving as it is. I guess one more little book wouldn’t hurt…

    • Shannon Thompson April 29, 2013 at 8:50 am #

      I hope you find time to read it! Understand if you have others to read :] We’re in a crazy and wonderful world full of plenty to read and explore!

  5. Writer / Mummy April 29, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    I really struggle with names and often grab something at random and change it when a first draft is finished, although that can be dangerous when it comes to editing!

    • Shannon Thompson April 29, 2013 at 8:51 am #

      good point! That can be dangerous with editing. However, a lot of publishers change characters’ names all the time, even after the author has had the novel for years. So it’s good to be open-minded to changing like you :]

      • Writer / Mummy April 29, 2013 at 9:24 am #

        Really? I knew that book titles got changed, but not character names. That must be a bit weird. I know a book means something to me (one I’ve written or one I’ve read) when the name sticks in my mind. Sometimes I can’t remember the protagonists name and then that’s not a good sign…

      • Shannon Thompson April 29, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

        Yep. It’s actually pretty rare when bigger publishers don’t change the names (or don’t suggest the author to change them.) I think the best YA example is how “Twilight” got changed. Rosalie was originally “Carol” and Jasper was first “Ronald.”

      • Writer / Mummy April 29, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

        Wow. Definitely improvements, especially Jasper!

  6. Gwen April 29, 2013 at 6:41 am #

    Naming is difficult. Sometimes I just name a character anything and wait for the name to come to me. I love it when this happens.

    • Shannon Thompson April 29, 2013 at 8:52 am #

      That’s wonderful they come to you! I normally have a list, and the name sticks somewhere in the originally planning. But I can’t say I’ve ever written and it came to me then. I think I’m too OCD. I can’t start writing until I have the names. It’s always interesting to hear of others and how their writing process differs. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Charles Yallowitz April 29, 2013 at 7:01 am #

    I use a baby naming book for when I’m away from the computer, but the problem with that is I eventually run out good names. I’m torn on the fantasy needing unique names. I try to do a mix of unique and common names with my characters. The main characters typically have unique names or their personalities relate to the common name. Learning what a mean names can be rather helpful in designing a character’s personality.

    • Shannon Thompson April 29, 2013 at 8:53 am #

      Yes! Babynames.com actually allows you to search their database by meaning. Kind of neat if you’re looking for something specific.

  8. Emily April 29, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    I’ve just realised I haven’t even said congratulations yet, so here it is – congratulations! I’m really happy all your hard work paid off and I’ll be getting myself a copy this week. It sounds like your latest novel is just the kind of thing I’d enjoy 🙂

    Great post too – I love your writing tips!

    • Shannon Thompson April 29, 2013 at 8:54 am #

      😀 Thank you and thank you again! I’m excited to hear what you think about “Minutes Before Sunset!” If you ever do a review, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ll put your links on my websites.
      I appreciate the support !

  9. thehealthybacon April 29, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    I enjoyed reading your post and thought you had some great ideas! Besides writing, I work in a grocery store and sometimes write down interesting customer names to use in my books (not the whole name, just first or last, like your yearbook idea).

    Best wishes on your book release! 🙂

  10. noemibetancourt April 29, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    Great post! I never would’ve thought of using a yearbook:) My go to has always been a large baby name book with international names. My favorite was a large book that’s sectioned into individual countries or cultures. I change it every 3-5 years when I start running out of favorites and the book I have now still lists country/culture of origin but it’s all just alphabetical (and broken down by sex of course) which seems to be a bit easier unless I specifically want to pinpoint a nation or culture. I’ve found online name sites, especially those focusing on sci-fi/fantasy, to be incredibly tedious, uninspired and throw out names no human tongue could ever hope to pronounce!

    In my recent book I’ve had to change the name of the villain because it sounded too close to that of the dwarf king and his direct enemy. I also ended up having to change the name of one heroine’s mother because it was too close to the daughter’s and would have gotten confusing and I inadvertently named one heroine, the daughter of a wealthy Texas rancher, Nancy Cartwright forgetting that that’s the name of a voice actress on The Simpsons. My editor thought it could possibly become an issue so I changed it to Nancy Harrington (and used my Google-Fu to make sure it wasn’t taken;)

  11. femmefatalefarmgirl April 29, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    Of all the things I love about writing, naming my characters is one of the most special to me– and one of the most difficult. Occasionally, I’ll be six chapters into a story before I’ve even settled on a first name, let alone a last.

    I also love using subtle irony in my names- it’s like an inside joke between myself and the plot.

  12. Fredrik Kayser April 29, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    Great post, naming characters is one of the things I really struggle with. I’m very picky with names, so finding suitable ones for characters becomes challenging. I write fantasy, high fantasy mostly. I defiantly agree with you on the interesting but readable bit. I tend to look to the cultures I draw inspiration from and also ask my foreign friends for suggestions. One thing I’ve done is make a big list of names and show that list to people I know and let them pick out names they like, ask a few people at a time and this weed out the less catching names.

    • Fredrik Kayser April 29, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

      Definately* typo

  13. saraletourneau April 29, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    Here’s another great place for character names: The Character Naming Sourcebook, compiled by Sherrilyn Kenyon. It lists names in numerous different languages (even older languages, like Teutonic or Latin) and their meanings. The back of the book also lists the most popular baby names in the U.S. every year since 1900. I personally love it and have used it when coming up with names for my stories.

    Here’s a link to it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Digest-Character-Naming-Sourcebook/dp/1582979200/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1367282981&sr=8-1&keywords=character+naming+sourcebook

  14. Max Shields April 29, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Reblogged this on Max Shields and commented:
    Here are some great suggestions for coming up with great names for your characters.

  15. kinkyfreedom April 30, 2013 at 5:58 am #

    Nice post, Shannon, and really interesting to read the comments and see everyone sharing resources. Some great tips here. Thanks, everyone 🙂

  16. L. Marie April 30, 2013 at 8:13 am #

    Great tips, Shannon. I often fall into the trap of using the same letter for names! 🙂

  17. lyndaanning April 30, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

    Reblogged this on lyndaanning.

  18. The Urban Book Thief May 1, 2013 at 12:08 am #

    Fab-u-lous news on the book release. I can’t believe that you’ve managed to find the time to go to college and write. Such a super star! Wishing you every success x

    • Shannon Thompson May 1, 2013 at 12:15 am #

      Thank you :] Lots of self-discipline & sacrifice but well worth the dream!

  19. dragonplume May 2, 2013 at 8:46 am #

    Such a great blog! Would you mind if I shared this article at my blog on May 7?

  20. yamulticulturaljunkie May 3, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    cant count how many YA fantasy or sic fi books have the same names repeated over and over :0

  21. europasicewolf May 9, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    That was very interesting…I do wish W/P hadn’t taken so long to at least show some semblence of getting my updates in working order! I can happily spend hours pouring over name options for characters. They somehow make or break a character on some levels at least in Wolfie world…not to say that isn’t a strange and bizarre place at the best of times but…lol 😉 The borderline-outright exotic names have always appealed the most…if I ever have children I do wonder what the poor mites will have to live with name wise! As I mostly stay in the realm of sci fi it’s perhaps a touch easier to get away with the slightly weird and wonderful sounding names but looking back over the years at some names…well! Let’s just say there is definitely room for going totally “overboard” verging on the ridiculous even! lol 🙂 You make some very good points here, as I would expect from someone with clear knowledge and experience of your field, and as a published writer only a fool would not respect and take good note of the writing tips and advice you kindly choose to share with us 🙂

    • Shannon Thompson May 9, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

      Thank you for your compliments 😀 If you ever think of a writing tips topic you’d like to hear more about, let me know, and I’ll post it, along with a link to your blog.
      And thank you for sharing your personal experiences! Readers can learn just as much from the other readers on this page, and I love it when people contribute :]

  22. accident March 28, 2014 at 1:49 am #

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  24. Riot Points Gratis May 20, 2014 at 6:04 am #

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