10 Tips for Choosing Characters’ Names

As I sit under my newly-purchased ‘heated throw’ (it’s basically an electric blanket and I love it) I thought it might be fun to think about characters’ names.

But don’t waste too much time thinking about your characters’ names. It can easily turn into procrastination!

Although they’re important, thinking up your characters’ names shouldn’t take up hours and hours of your precious writing time! Here are a few things to bear in mind:

1. Names are important. They can tell the reader a lot. Think of them as a kind of shorthand for (possibly): age, race, religion, time (e.g.: the era the character was born in) and class. Of course, ‘in real life’ there are always exceptions.. (see 2).

2. You may well know an 80-year-old called Chardonnay or a toddler called Horace but in fiction, unless you’re being ironic/humorous, I’d suggest there are better names for characters of those ages.

Of course, old-fashioned names, such as ‘Molly’ and ‘Albert’ are making a comeback. I used that to my advantage in a twist-in-the-tale story once. The reader was deceived into thinking that Simon was a single dad taking his daughter, Molly, swimming. Actually, he was taking his mum, Molly, to the pool and because she’d recently had a hip replacement and didn’t know the layout of the changing rooms, he was extra anxious.

3. Avoid having lots of characters with similar-sounding names. ‘John, Josh and Jamie’ (all starting with the same letter) will confuse the heck out of readers and ‘Bob, Tim and Ken’ (all one syllable) will also take some effort to differentiate.

For my novels, which have dozens of characters, I make a list of all the names in alphabetical order and try to spread my use of the alphabet (and also the length of the names). It’s surprising how often you get drawn to a particular letter!

4. In normal speech we tend not to use one another’s names very often, so avoid having characters do so unless they’re exasperated or actually calling someone’s name. Otherwise, it can sound unnatural.

5. Don’t use famous/well-known names unless there’s a particular reason for doing so. One of my students wrote a short story recently and called their main character ‘Henry James’ and for the first few paragraphs of the story I was distracted and wondering whether it was meant to be the Henry James. (It wasn’t. The student hadn’t even noticed he’d used a well-known writer’s name).

6. Sometimes it’s fun to choose a name for your character based on its meaning.

Suzanne Collins apparently chose ‘Katniss’ for the heroine of The Hunger Games because the name derives from a plant with edible tubers called Sagittaria (katniss), from Sagittarius the Archer (and Katniss, as you may well know, is very handy with a bow-and-arrow).

In my forthcoming novel, the main character is called Persephone (‘Seffy’), which means, amongst other things ‘bringer of destruction’!

7. You don’t have to name all your characters. Think of it like casting a play. If anyone has a ‘walk on part’ (a bartender, taxi driver or someone who appears once and never again), they don’t need to be named. As soon as you name a character, the reader thinks they’re important and will be expecting them to appear again or to be significant to the plot.

8. It’s tempting to use the names of people you know in your fiction but beware!

If you use friends’ names, they – and everyone else in your circle – will believe that character is based on them (not necessarily a good thing).

If you use some friends’ names but miss out others, those not included might take offence and finally, if you name a baddie after an old boss or an ex (or that relation you can’t stand), there’s every chance they’ll read it and recognise themselves and it could be at best, embarrassing or cause a falling-out and at worse (unlikely but it has happened), you could be sued.

9. There are plenty of baby name websites if you’re stuck for inspiration and you can easily google ‘popular baby names in 1921’, or whatever, if you’re trying to find an appropriate name from a certain era.

Noah and Olivia are currently the most popular baby names in England and Wales, for instance.

But always check whether the baby name website you’re using is UK or American. It does make a difference, obviously and in my experience, the US sites often pop up first on Google.

10. Don’t forget to use nicknames, if appropriate. If your novel features groups of people (school children, rugby players, soldiers, factory workers and the like), it adds authenticity, I think, to give one or two of those characters a nickname because that’s what would happen in real life.

How do you choose your characters’ names? Are there any you’re particularly pleased with?

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14 Responses to 10 Tips for Choosing Characters’ Names

  1. Eirin Thompson says:

    The names I love best are those which just ‘come’ to me and feel exactly right. The main character in my new book (‘Closing In’ by E.D. Thompson, due out next week and yes I am super-excited) is called Caroline. I never imagined calling her anything else. There is also a Harry and a Lucas, who seemed to name themselves. Only months after the manuscript had been submitted, did it occur to me that I have a niece called Caroline and great-nephews called Harry and Lucas. I don’t think they’ll mind, though, and there is absolutely no resemblance between the characters and the family members.

    • It’s great if the names just ‘come to you’, isn’t it? I don’t usually wrestle with them for too long but they have to feel right for the character! Great news that your new book is out next week. Is that number 2 or number 3?! I can’t keep up!

  2. christinemhowe says:

    I fell into the similar-sounding names pit recently when I was hit by the realisation that having an Esme and an Emma in the novel was a bad idea. In the same novel I was pleased with another character’s first and surname; fitted the chap perfectly. Then, I read Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club and discovered a character with the same name. After a bit of inner wailing I changed my character’s name. No one would believe me that I thought of it before reading RO’s book, would they?

    • Agree, Esme and Emma are a bit too similar, aren’t they? I hope you got the chance to change them? That’s funny about the Richard Osman character’s name (which one was it, if I may ask?). I’m listening to the new Richard Osman on audio at the moment and I’m really enjoying it. So funny and so brilliantly narrated by Fiona Shaw.

  3. Sharon boothroyd says:

    As a womag writer I tend to use the same female names – Jess, Clare, Emma, Beth, Carrie, Tess, Kate, Helen and Rachel are good examples. I recently had a change and choose the name Saffy! As I’m writing for a younger audience, I try to avoid older generation names, such as Tracey, Maggie, Wendy, Elaine, Jackie and of course, my own name. Now there’s all sorts of names for young women, such as India or Sky (and similar exotic names for young guys too) but I dislike using fancy names too much, as I feel it would distract the reader from the plot!

    • Thanks for your comment, Sharon. I did reply but then it seemed to disappear so I obviously didn’t press the right button! Glad to see you’re using ‘Helen’ occasionally as a name for a character! I like Saffy, that’s a good name for a younger woman. Ella is very popular too. My 20 year old niece is called Ella and so are lots of her friends! That’s a good point about having names that are too fancy. You have to bear in mind too that the reader will ‘say’ the name in their head. Although my main character in the new book is called ‘Persephone’ she’s hardly ever called that – she’s known as ‘Seffy’.

  4. I really like your blog I’d like to sign up but couldn’t find a place to do that it’s a great blog topic.

    • Hi Billie, thanks for your message. If you scroll right down on the blog, there is an email subscription ‘sign me up’ button in the bottom right hand corner. I hope you manage to find it!

  5. christinemhowe says:

    I’ve kept Esme, as the name fits my elderly lady perfectly. Emma is now Rachel. The Thursday Murder Club character is Peter Ward. An ordinary enough name, but with a similar level of significance in the novel.

  6. Hi Helen, I LOVE choosing character names, it’s so much fun! Today I was going through the table of contents of the flash novel I’m working on, adding the characters’ names next to each piece to see how the balance between is going, and feeling pretty pleased with them. I don’t tend to decide consciously, I ‘listen’ to what name comes through then try it out. My MC is called Diana because she looks (novel based on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks so I have an actual physical image of her) like someone I knew a long time ago called Diana. But that then developed a huge aspect of the novel, which is her mirroring the goddess Diana. I just love how that happens, following a thread and letting it take you into a whole new world! 😃​

    • Hi Philippa, lovely to hear from you. Yes, I do that too, with names. Often I’m not even aware of their meaning when I give them to a character and then, when I delve a bit more into the name, shorten it, find out the meaning, etc, it helps to flesh out the character. And it is fun, I agree! (it’s not all fun – I hate first drafts, for instance, it’s like pulling teeth – but naming characters is fun!)

  7. Eirin Thompson says:

    Thanks for your encouragement, Helen. This is just my second thriller (writing as E.D. Thompson at publishers’ suggestion); a VERY long time ago they published two darkish comedy-dramas of mine, writing just as ‘Eirin Thompson’, but I believe those are now only available as e-books.

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