Who else LOVES naming characters?
That’s right. We all do. I can spend hours just browsing baby name websites. Google thinks that I’m pregnant and keeps trying to sell me baby booties.
Which, you know, are adorable, but what I’m actually after is the perfect name for New Character #847.
It’s only natural to want to pick out (or make up!) the perfect baby name, but there’s a lot more to choosing a name than thinking, “Oh, hey, that’s a cool name.” You’ve got to think of something unique (but not contrived), memorable (but in a good way), and revealing (but not too obvious). And then you’ve got to consider how two characters’ names will combine into their ship name. Seriously, did Suzanne Collins spare no thought to Katniss and Peeta’s ship name?
Where do you even start?
- Make sure that your character’s name fits their age and geographic location. It’d be weird to have your protagonist be an eighteenth-century Vietnamese woman named Britney, right? Unless, of course, Britney was a time-traveler from twenty-first-century North America. The Social Security Name Popularity List is an excellent resource for first names; for last names, try the List of the Most 1000 Most Common Surnames in the U.S., take a stroll through your local cemetery, or flip through a phone or yearbook.
- Don’t be too literal. Say, for example, your protagonist is secretly a mermaid. Naming her Ocean is a little on the nose, but naming her something that means ocean, like Genevieve or Nami, is a good way to slip in a clue about her secret identity. A classic example: Remus Lupin, a.k.a. Wolf Wolf, from Harry Potter.
- Make sure your fantasy names are pronounceable. Sure, you could just smash your keyboard and hope for the best, but who has the patience for a main character named Amdwoinjgok? Can you imagine having to type that out 800 times? Noooo thank you. Take the easy way out by misspelling little-known mythological names and/or mashing two or three names together. For example: Hiddleswift. That’s clearly the name that a Dickensian pickpocket goes by to avoid being recognized as the long-lost high king.
- Be wary of using foreign names just because they sound cool or exotic. Yijing is a lovely name, but it’d be weird if it belonged to a Latina Texan with absolutely no connections to Chinese culture. Connect your names with your characters’ cultures, and be careful about which sources you use. I recommend at least triple-checking a name so that you’re absolutely sure what it means. Bonus tip: If you want to be really thorough, you can also learn a bit about how people in your chosen culture choose names. For example, the Chinese method is pretty different from the Western one.
- Watch out for loaded names. Adolf is a fine German name with hundreds of years of history, but will anyone ever associate it with anyone other than Hitler? Belle is a classic, but can you even think it without picturing a yellow ball gown and a talking teapot? Just as you wouldn’t give a real baby a loaded name without good reason, don’t name your fictional babies something that’ll be difficult to explain.
- Make things easier in the future by keeping lists. I have lists of my favorite first and last names, and I also keep a running record of every character name I make up, even if they just belong to a plot bunny. They’re a lot of work to set up, but they’re worth it.
Finding a character name is easy—there are a million baby name sites out there. (Side note: I totally recommend babynames.com and magicbabynames.com.) Choosing one is a little tougher. Don’t worry if you wind up changing your mind a few times; unlike a real baby, your character won’t be traumatized if you change their name halfway through the story.
also, psst—I wrote a post about picking last names for characters, too.
Where are your favorite places to find character names?