Why do Character Names Matter?
Names are how your readers will tell each character apart. Right away, they will start creating a mental map of the people populating your book. That’s hardly all that names do, though.
Think of names as shorthand forms that help readers differentiate between characters. Instead of writing every time ‘the cute young blonde wearing black boots,’ you give her a name.
Once the name and the distinctive personality traits of each character have been matched, your readers will know that the blond girl with the black boots is called Alessandria Bergman.
Just by reading her name, you formed a mental image, didn’t you?
That is the power of names: they are the first step toward getting to know your characters better.
There is a lot of truth in the saying that we judge a book by its cover. To twist this maxim a bit, we understand a person by their name. We often expect people to live up to their names and own up to their name’s meaning, hence the expression, “by name and by nature.”
The same is true of your characters. A name will tell readers a lot about a person. A woman named Agatha will probably be an older woman, since we rarely use that name anymore. Your readers will immediately create a mental image of her.
Likewise, a character named Henry Trust can easily be the jaded detective in a 1930s noir where he shows up at the crime scene, hat in hand. The name speaks of someone trustworthy, dedicated to his job, and not easily impressed.
With the right descriptions, you can create a whole character to support each name—and vice versa: the name becomes shorthand for the character’s most important qualities.
Once you have your character name, you can start building your storyline.
In our first example, Agatha can be the older woman who has been through a lot and knows when to speak. As the story unfolds, your character reinforces her name and brings the story forward.
Character names help writers tell their stories in a smooth and flowing way. If the character matches the name, the story develops almost on its own.
Examples of Iconic Character Names
There are many iconic characters whose names tell you right away what kind of persons they are. Writers have gone to great lengths to come up with names for main characters that convey a specific emotional reaction.
In the Star Wars series, Darth Vader is a combination of the words dark and death, which give us Darth. As for Vader, it means ‘father’ in Dutch. The perfect name for a dark and deadly father who wreaks havoc in people’s lives and beyond!
Just by uttering the name, you know this is a sinister character—and that his children are a big part of his identity. This serves as a wonderful case of foreshadowing, as it is his son who will finally manage to redeem him.
Did you know that Arthur Conan Doyle initially wanted to call his hero Sherrinford Hope? There are two versions as to why Sherrinford Hope never made it into the stories. Either the publisher didn’t like the name of the hero and rejected the story or Doyle’s wife complained that the name sounded terrible.
So, Sherlock Holmes was born instead. Sherlock comes from Old English and means ‘fair hair.’ The surname Holmes comes from an American doctor who was known for his painstaking and thorough research and understanding of medicine and whom Conan Doyle seemed to admire. The resemblance with Sherlock Holmes becomes strikingly obvious when you consider that the real-life Dr. Holmes apparently thought that a successful medical diagnosis was all about one’s deductive skills.
J. K. Rowling wanted to create an evil character. The term ‘Lord’ gives substance and power to the character and defines them as someone who wishes to lord over others.
As for Voldemort, the writer picked the word ‘vol,’ which in French has a double meaning: flight but also theft. The writer continued with another French word: ‘mort,’ meaning death. So, Lord Voldemort suggests a ‘thief of death’ or even a ‘deadly flight.’ All in all, an appropriately menacing name for one of literature’s most terrifying antiheroes.
J. R. R. Tolkien chose the name Frodo from Old English which means ‘wise by experience.’ His hero gains wisdom through his adventures, hence the name. As for Baggins, it refers to ‘bag,’ and apparently, it was an Anglo-Saxon name given to people who traveled carrying a bag, pouch, or sack. Right away, we know we’re going on a trip!
Ian Fleming wanted a strong, yet almost uninspiring name for his hero. His goal was to make the adventures and exploits he faced remarkable. The character had to carry a simple, solid name that would be easy to remember—and bond with.
It would seem that an ornithologist friend of Ian Fleming carried that name and the writer got inspired by it.
Hannibal was the Carthaginian commander who threatened Rome by crossing the Alps with elephants. His well-organized move caught the Romans by surprise and became part of his military legend. As a bonus, there is a strong oral similarity between Hannibal and ‘cannibal.’
As for the ‘Lecter’ part, it comes from Latin and means to read… making Hannibal Lecter the perfect name to describe a violent man who is also a genius—a man who’s well-versed and knows how to commit and hide a crime. Oh, and who’s also a cannibal.
How to Choose Character Names
Do you have the whole plot ready in your mind and yet the names still elude you? Or are you, perhaps, undecided because you have several names in mind for the same character?
If so, then maybe all you need is a little help with your name ideas for the characters. Here are our top tips for coming up with the perfect name for your character.
You want names for fictional characters that stick to people’s minds but are not ridiculously exotic. You want them to stand out just enough so they are easily readable and recognizable.
Creating memorable character names for a story doesn’t mean you want to put extra double letters and apostrophes to make them look sassy. Take for example the name Amelia, which is a common name in the US right now. You can write it as Amelia, Amaelia, Amellia, or Amelya—and unduly confuse the reader, who may think you forgot to use the spellchecker.
Speaking of alternative spellings, they can make a name interesting as long as you don’t overdo it. Alison can become Allyson, Benjamin can be Benjamyn, Catherine can be written like Kathryn, and Ryan can turn into Rian. Just make sure there is a compelling reason for the unusual spelling.
Related to the above, the way you spell a name may have a particular meaning in your story. For example, our girl Amaellya may be a struggling young artist who wishes to spell her name in a unique and memorable way as she desperately seeks success.
Unless this is the case, however, make the name and its spelling as simple as possible to help your readers read it more easily.
Part of the beauty of names is that they mean things. That is why the Wachowskis took so long to come up with the names of the characters in The Matrix. “Neo,” for example, comes from Greek and means “new” or “novel.”
In fact, many writers choose as a name Latin or Greek words that carry a specific meaning. This lets them incorporate that meaning into their character’s qualities. As an example, the Latin for light is ‘Lux,’ making this the ideal name for a character who represents the light, literally and/or metaphorically.
This also works with English, of course. Albert, for instance, means noble and smart, while Amy means to be loved.
Each genre has its own unwritten rules. Your readers anticipate a specific form of action and characters, depending on the genre.
A character named Eyan would probably look out of place in a WW2 romantic novel but would be perfectly suited for a whimsical fantasy novel. Berta, Alfred, or Bette are great names for mid-twentieth-century settings.
Names come in and out of fashion, so try to keep this in mind. Mindy and Brandi, for example, would feel out of place in a Victorian novel.
Very long names with complicated spellings may confuse your readers. This is typically overdone in fantasy and sci-fi, especially when naming devices and contraptions, leading Raymond Chandler to complain to his agent about it as follows:
“Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this:
‘I checked out with K19 on Adabaran III, and stepped out through the crummaliote hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop.’ ”
Two-to-three-syllables names are usually the perfect length.
Once you have decided on your main character names, say it out loud. If you have assigned a surname as well, say out loud the full name and listen to how it sounds to the ear. Sometimes names you see on paper sound weird when pronounced. This is even more the case with fantasy or science fiction names that tend to overdo it with consonants, hyphens, and apostrophes. Quite often, less is more!
Going back to our Berta and Brandi examples, Berta is easily assumed to be older while Brandi is readily believed to be young.
Some names just sound young while others have a more mature undertone to them. Aunt Rose and Uncle Clifton sound stately but potentially stuffy, while names like Liam or Billy Joe sound younger and more active.
When you decide on your character’s name, consider their personality. Finnian sounds like a very interesting name: does it match your character’s identity, though? Aria, a name with Italian origins, suggests a female character with charisma and zeal. Melody or Harmony would be perfect names for a singer or an artist. And Melissa, which is the Greek word for bee, suggests a hard-working girl. Is this the case with your heroine?
Naya and Ishaan are Indian names. Oona and Fiona are Scottish names. Marco and Valentina are Italian names. Just by looking at the names, your readers will get a feel for the ethnic background of your character and start forming an image in their heads.
Don’t ignore people’s perceptions, so avoid naming an Italian character George instead of Giorgio, unless there is a compelling reason in the story (for example, you wish to stress that he’s been assimilated by American society).
Furthermore, there are some names that have an Irish or Nordic feel to them—often associated with fantasy. This makes names such as Arwen, Doneen, and Eyan perfect for a fantasy novel set in a mysterious land.
First and last names for characters are all good and great, but what about nicknames?
Nicknames add depth to your story and let readers identify with the characters. Make your nickname a little special. For example, the most common nickname for Benjamin would be Benji or Ben. Give it a little twist and make your character’s sister call him ‘Bendi’ and explain that when he was younger he couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘j’ so he called himself ‘Bendi’ instead of ‘Benji.’ Just by adding this simple line, you have turned a nickname into a potent symbol of the intimacy between the two siblings and their shared history.
Oh, and once you have given your character a nickname, stick with it, or it can all get terribly confusing!
Avoid Similar Names
When researching names for characters in a story, choose names that sound and look different. Don’t name one character Benjamin and another Bernard. Your readers may get confused and have to read your sentences more than once to make sure they have the right character in mind.
Ideally, don’t even start your characters’ names with the same letter. Most readers read the first letter of the name and intuitively know who you are talking about. Having a host of Jacks, Johns, and Jameses risks confusing readers who fast-read.
Avoid Famous Names
Most readers will be well aware of famous people and names, so avoid giving your characters instantly recognizable names such as Jobbs, Elon, or Dwayne.
When you give your character the name of a famous person, your readers will match the name with the face of the respective celebrity because they have seen that person thousands of times on social media, in movies, or in concerts. This can be terribly confusing to them, especially if your character bears no resemblance to the celebrities in question.
How to Find Character Names
You can find inspiration everywhere for your character name ideas. Here are some useful tools and resources that can help you in your research:
Besides Bookbird, there are several fantastic name generators, including the following:
There are also some specialized ones—e.g. fantasy name generators.
You can match the character’s personality to a name or find names that belong to a specific era. Random name generators typically let you choose your character’s gender to help you choose the appropriate names.
Popular Baby Names
Visit an online directory and start perusing through the addresses and names. With a little mix-and-matching magic you can certainly find the perfect name and surname for your character.
J. K. Rowling apparently visited cemeteries and looked at the names on the graves to find inspiration for her characters’ names. It doesn’t have to be as macabre as that, but if inspiration evades you, cemeteries can be a great way to get the creative juices flowing, particularly if you want old-fashioned names.
Otherwise, simply take a walk around large office blocks. Check the names on the signs and see if any catch your attention.
Friends and Families
Our friends and families can be great sources of inspiration. Just like Ian Fleming named James Bond after his ornithologist friend, so can you find ideas from the ones closest to you.
Just make sure they don’t mind being in your book, even if only in name. Check with them first, especially if you plan on giving their name to a malicious character, or risk attending some rather awkward family meetings!
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