Naming your characters, especially your main characters, can feel like a daunting task. Some enjoy the thrill of it; others struggle a lot, and never quite feel like they found the “right” name.
I, for one, love naming characters. I often joke that baby name books are some of my favorite reads and, in fact, I’ve been this way for a while. I hated my name growing up and spent a lot of time vicariously living through my characters with fanciful or meaningful names I much more preferred. (Fun fact: I’m named after the song “Shannon” by Henry Gross.)
Naming characters can be a lot of fun and, with the right tools and a little bit of imagination, you can enjoy the process, too.
First and foremost:
When should you name characters? Honestly, whenever you want to. I tend to name my characters long before I start writing. (I spend a significant time researching and playing with the names before I attempt Chapter One.) This has benefits, but it also has drawbacks. I’ve had to change character names after the fact, and due to my attachment, it was a lot harder. (I still secretly call them by their original names to my beta readers.) But I love getting to know my characters long before I meet them on the page.
How should you name your characters? Consider the setting of your novel. What time period are you in? What culture? 1880 in Russia is going to be VERY different from 2030 in Brazil. Once you figure that out, consider who is naming your character. Technically, it’s you, yes, but in the world of your character, they were named by someone and/or adopted a name for themselves. Knowing this motivation will help you not only build your world but get to know your character better. A daughter may be named after her grandparent, or a man may reject his name because he hates who he is named after. The nickname he adopts could mean something to him or be something he saw off of a billboard. Either way, that says a lot about what is happening. Remember most parents use iambic pentameter for names. The rhythm often works and will help your character names shine.
Where can I find names?
Babynames.com provides thousands of names within cultures, meanings, genders, and more. I love BabyNames.com. You can even save your favorite names as you skip around. (Don’t be surprised if people ask you why you’re looking up baby names in public. I’ve been “congratulated” on a number of occasions.)
Aside from BabyNames.com, I get creative. I flip through old yearbooks, magazines, etc. I’ve even used my own family’s genealogy as a place to get inspired. For historical pieces, I tend to look at popular names through the years at SSA, [Social Security Association.] I also consider last names very carefully. Last Name Meanings provides a list of last names and where they derived from, along with the meaning behind them.
Can I make up names?
Absolutely! I tend to get this question from fantasy/sci-fi writers, because sci-fi/fantasy generally calls for unique names, but tread carefully. Sometimes, your best bet is taking well-known names and simply mixing them to create something unique, ex. Serena + Violet = Serolet. Try NameCombiner.com to see what you can come up with.
Is choosing a name holding you back from actually writing? Embrace filler names. I use filler names all the time. Basically, I have a list of names that are placeholders for certain personalities. I consistently use these names while first drafting, until I settle on a “real” name that feels right. If you don’t have these, grab some from a name generator. I don’t use Scrivener to get my character names. However, there’s a name generator that I think is an awesome tool that is often overlooked. It’s found in the same place: Edit -> Writing Tools -> Name Generator, and you can select from a variety of choices: names by country origin, first letter, ending letter, alliteration, and more. More recently, I’ve started a private Pinterest board where I pin baby name articles and other fun names I come across. Now it’s easy to just hop on and scroll through ones I’ve been saving for future use.
Once you get a full cast, it’s best to double check the list and ask yourself how they’ll appear throughout the series. Too many similar names might make it hard for readers to follow. Avoid repetitive names or sounds. You probably don’t want to name everyone with a “J” name. It’d be hard to follow Jack, John, Jared, and Jill around. I suggest making a list of characters names in alphabetical order so you can physically see what is represented. Consider start, end, and syllables. The exception generally happens within relationships. Example? If you have brothers, maybe they will have similar names, but don’t overdo it. Granted, this solution might not fit every scenario. There are times where similarities can be too meaningful to change. But it doesn’t hurt to consider all your options.
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!
P.S. I’m teaching a free, virtual writing class on Wednesday, June 2 at 6:30 PM-8:00 PM CDT. It’s all about Starting a Writing Project. So, if you’re looking for more inspiration and fun tools/tricks, you can register here.