Novel Writing: How do you name your characters?

Photo Credit: YA Highway

If you all haven’t noticed I love my posts to ask you questions about books or writing or publishing or something in between. It gives me a chance to interact with every one of you who chooses to offer your insight. And I do mean insight, because yes I’ve written a book that I love and am working on my second, but I’m always looking for advice on how I can become a better writer and I’ve already gotten so much from you guys just in the last month or so from your comments and feedback. So let’s talk about naming characters, shall we?

There are SO many aspects to a good book, right? The first line. The title. The people who made it happen behind the scenes. The storyline. The dialogue. AND the names of all the characters. I would never go so far as to say any part of writing a book is easy, but writing the actual book is probably the easiest of everything. Somewhere in there we have the difficult task of naming characters. It’s not the most difficult thing you’ll do, but you best believe that it won’t be the easiest.

My Philosophy

Honestly, I kind of cheated when it came to naming characters in my first book. Cheated, you’re thinking. How?! Hold your horses. I named several characters and based them, in part,  on real people I am lucky enough to know. If you’ve followed my blog since last year then you already know this. My reasoning was that these people are important to me, and their names are already perfect! I mean, I just let their parents do the hard part twenty something years ago. I couldn’t just let a perfect name go to waste. No. That would be bad writing. Here’s a list of some of the character names in my first and second books:

Book One

Andrew Banks

Sydney Durham

Nathan Fox

Mercedes Vega

Carlos Vega

Alejandra Vega

Hunter David

Book Two

Stephany Alvarez

Mark Giles

Mason Cook

Chad Green

Now this list isn’t exhaustive and I won’t tell you which names I came up with and which ones I didn’t. That makes it more fun. But four of the names are the exact names of people I know. And one is just the first name. I dare you to figure out which ones are not real.

So you know my philosophy, stealing, now I want to know yours. How do you name your characters in your book? And tell me some names you’ve come up with and we can compare!

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72 thoughts on “Novel Writing: How do you name your characters?

  1. I steal last names from people I know. I find there’s a fine line between ‘easy’ names and ‘real’ names. ‘Easy’ names are ones that a reader can look at, pronounce, and remember, names like ‘Smith.’ ‘Real’ names are the ones we run in to at work and school; people whose names denote a strong tie to somewhere besides England. I’m talking about Majewski, Koletsos, Vasiloff, Pierroni, etc. These are just a few people I went to school with. They might not be ‘easy’ to read, but they’re very real. I find the balance hard to maintain.

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    • So then I think mine are all easy names? Which is fine with me. I hate reading names in books over and over never knowing if I’m pronouncing it correctly in my head as I read.

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      • You have to have a mix, I think. I recently read ‘The Art of Fielding’ and most of the characters had really strange names and it stuck out because of that. I think having even one character with a ‘real’ name gives the whole book a more realistic feel to it. Think of Fes on ‘That 70s Show’ or the Fonz on ‘Happy Days.’

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      • You’re right. I think mine are real but easy. I’ll have to consider this in the future.

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  2. Kale Desmin, Angel Howard, Wyatt O’Brien, Cecil Desmin, Gertrude Howard, Tesla O’Brien, are a few of the names I have! Something about the names seems to fit in with each personality somehow; it’s like the names just came straight into my mind while I was dreaming up the characters…except Angel…that one came later! Haha. I love the name Mercedes! In my second followup novel one of the characters is named Mercedes; it is one of my all-time favorite names: beautiful, elegant, and mysterious!

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  3. When I was actually writing stories and not articles, if I had to make up a character or even multiple characters I would always choose the first name from a lead singer of a band I listen too, and the last name from a footballer from any given team. Relatively easy concept that can wield endless possibilities.
    Also I think I only know 3 of the 4. Unless I’m thinking too much on the last one, then I know them all.

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    • That’s an…..odd way of naming them. Those people are already known by their names. I’d rather give some unknown person some glory. You don’t know the fourth one. She’s not from the HEB family. Lol

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  4. I love how J.K. Rowling named her characters in the Harry Potter series. You knew immediately what most of the characters were like by merely reading their names. Hermoine? Had to be a know-it-all. Ron Weasley? Had to be average and red headed. Professor Sprout? Had to teach herbology.
    And I think that works for me in realistic fictional novels. A woman named Maude? Totally an ugly duckling waiting to be turned into a swan. A Jenny/Becky/Stacy probably was a cheerleader at some point in their lives. Jim? A solid, upstanding citizen. Serial killers aren’t named Jim. And someone named Mercedes? I’m thinking total bombshell.

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    • Those are great points about Harry Potter. Although I think some of of the names were just eh, overall they’re pretty fantastic.

      And your points on the other names are spot on. Mercedes in my book was a young, innocent, goodhearted teen. I just love the name. Alejandra is first introduced as overly attractive and confident but that disappears quickly.

      Now Stephany is something else in the second book. Confident, assertive, independent, successful, and my main character can’t take his eyes off her. Literally.

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  5. I have occasionally stolen last names (rarely first names), but I mostly do research for my characters. Sometimes names just pop into my head and they’re perfect, like my main character Ava Monaghan. Nice, but not too fantastical even though I’m writing a middle grade fantasy. Some other characters are Charlie Gabrian, Ruth Kinsey, Boone Wigheard, Ezekiel Van Heusen (that one is for fun!).

    Most of my names come from extensive research on behindthename.com, as well as a lot of other sites and books. Especially history books. I love the idea of name meanings being important in the character’s personality, and often make up names. Google’s translation site helps me with this.

    I use average names on occasion to keep the story down to earth, but researching names is one of my favorite (and hardest) parts of writing.

    I like your names, though, and honestly have no idea which ones are made up. Well done!

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  6. I can’t write fiction to save my life so my comment is from a reader’s perspective: why oh why do some authors give their characters names that are so similar you’re always flipping back and forth to remember who is who? Like Robert Ramirez and Roger Romero. Or Erin Bomen and Karin Monen. So my two cents worth is: I’m happy as long as I can keep all the characters straight.

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    • There’s no one more important than the reader. I’ve definitely found myself trying to figure out who the heck is who when the author does a poor job naming characters. But that’s pretty rare.

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  7. I am a frequent user of baby name sites. And when I can’t find what I am looking for there I go on to look for the origin of the name. I love making up names, but I have only found one that actually worked for character. Zorada is a witch in my first book. I didn’t give her a last name because she has been around for a while and has found that last names don’t really matter. Actually, I don’t give my characters a last name unless it comes up for some reason in the story. If they are human they have a last name, unless they die too soon to need one. Another name that I made up was Lady Laven. She is one of my favorite characters and very unique, so a regular name would have never worked for her.

    Other characters I have named based on who they are. I will give them a common name until I know who they are, then go search the baby name sites to find the name that means something. Something that will match the character and their role in the story. I have a story that is sitting on the back burner and the main character is Amara, which means eternal. She isn’t a vampire, but she never dies.

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    • Hmm. Another person who likes for the names to have meaning. I think I’d like to put a little more into names but I still don’t know about giving them such meaning that readers won’t even know.

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      • For me, giving the character names is more for myself than for the readers. I make sure it’s a name that won’t be hard to remember, but the meaning of the name is purely for my own entertainment. It helps me connect with the characters better. They become more like friends than someone I created.

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      • Hmm. Okay. I get that. Probably makes writing them really cool.

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  8. Baby name books are my thing! I also love looking at the other ways to spell the name because it makes it a bit unique plus I try to have their characteristics fit their names. I also love reading the meaning of the names in the baby books and using them to reflect my characters too! This coming from someone who’s name means “edge of the sea” according to my baby book.
    Also, I love names that can be used for both sexes since my siblings and I all have names that can be flipped. It’s fun to watch people’s reactions when they hear that Morgan isn’t for a boy like it was before.

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    • Hmm. I was waiting for someone to use those. I guess my philosophy, when I do come up with the names myself, of staring at a spot on the wall until I have a name wouldn’t work for you, huh? Barely works for me.

      Well Stephany is a different spelling. I think it makes it unique. BUT it’s real, so I take no credit.

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  9. I have about a million names that I want to use for my eventual child, but we only want one child. So, I use those names, which means that almost all of my characters are named for my someday offspring. Strange, now that I think about it.

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    • Yes, that is strange! But kind of interesting. Although I’d name a daughter Alejandra or Mercedes in the future in a second. I guess not so strange, really.

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      • And I guess most of them are stolen since the majority are picked up in books that I read, although I could probably never remember which ones!

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      • Uh oh. We can’t talk anymore. At least I steal from people who know it and give me explicit permission, you’re stealing from authors who don’t know it! No.

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      • I mean names in passing, not main or even semi-important characters. Never whole names, either.

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      • Hmmmmmm. If you say so.

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      • Say I like the name Henryk. Chances are that I read it somewhere, either in a book, an article, or any other material. It goes on a list of names that I like. There’s a possibility it will be one of my characters someday. I’m not saying I name my characters Hermione Granger, Harry Potter, or Frodo Baggins.

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      • Haha I know. I was having too much fun. I think it’d the funniest thing ever and see a character named Hermione. Cause every reader would think….”really?”

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      • Or even Harry! Some names are just too “famous”, I guess. And essentially, unless you concoct a name yourself, all names are stolen from somewhere.

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      • Hm. I suppose. I admit to stealing nothing.

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  10. Sometimes I will look up names that mean something about the character. For instance, in my current novel the character’s last name is Channing which means “young wolf.” For many of the characters though I will go to the social security website. There you can look up the most popular names for any year. When I’m really stumped I will also use the name chooser in my Scrivener which will spit out ten or so random names based on the settings I enter.

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  11. I like to walk through cemeteries and look at people’s names. Sometimes I’ll mix one name with another. And sometimes the name just comes to me mystically. It’s difficult to describe. It’s like the character saying :”write about me!”
    Here are some of my characters’ names: Darren Van Ray, Alice Vireo, Eugene Munro, Claire Cool, Suzy Paradise, Felicity Star, Campbell Jones, Estie Leduc. Harper Harper and so on…

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  12. Great topic! Most of the names (first especially) fell from the sky practically. They were names that fascinated me, not necessarily being tied to people I know. Last names, however, are more challenging for me to come up with. Sometimes I want to pick last names that are of the cultural background of my characters. I will often locate last names through Google/research, or take from people I know. Some examples from my first and second stories are Mariam Parker, Claire Parker, Joseph Adeh, Phoenix Nguyen, Myra Costa…the list goes on 🙂

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  13. For my characters I always picture their face and build in my mind and write the first name that comes to me… I cut the cheesy ones and go again. I figure your mind is filled with experiences giving you a pretty big database of names. You just hit the ‘surpise me’ button (o;

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    • Interesting! I can honestly say that I’ve inky gone with the first name that came to mind with Andrew Banks. I thought of the name one day and stuck with it. That was about 15 months before I began work on the actual book.

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  14. Love this post! Every time I come across a name that I like, I save into a giant word document I have on my computer. When I create a new character, I usually have a feel for who they are, but they’re not a solid character until they have a name – that’s when I go to word and scroll through the names. Usually I’ll get to a name that I instantly know is right. Last names are way harder, unfortunately. I have no strategy for that – I’ll have to use some of the suggestions I’ve read here! 🙂

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    • You and me both! Seriously, all the suggestions and personal philosophies that have been mentioned are great. Hmm saving good names in a Word document? Now THAT is something I must do! It’s so easy! Thank you for mentioning that! I’m not shouting at you, just a little execited. 🙂

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      • It’s okay, I like shouting. But seriously, it gets a little addicting. If I’m out and away from my computer, I’ll write the name on a scrap of paper until I can get home. Then I have all these little names floating around in my purse… 🙂

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      • Haha I used to carry a notebook around for book ideas but I never used it. Now I have one on my desk for blog post ideas. I just tried to think of any names that I might have tucked away for a character. I have none. New Word document being created now.

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      • Excellent. 😉

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  15. I generally won’t buy a book that I don’t like the main characters’ first names so when naming my characters I keep that in mind. I don’t want the names to be too out there or weird. The first names I choose are usually somewhat common, but I try to pick last names that aren’t as common. And for some of the characters, I really try to find unique last names–sometimes hybrids of names that I make up so their names will stand out.

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  16. The names of my characters sometimes just come into my head, other times I have to play around with names before I find the right one. The hero of the novel I’ve just finished is called Will Schoddy. I wanted an unusual, slightly odd surname for him. It took a while of searching on the internet before I found it. 🙂

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  17. Reblogged this on Cronin Detzz "Writer's Block" and commented:
    What should you name your darlings? (Check out this cool blog.) Should your characters have names that are easy to pronounce? I read Game of Thrones, where there was an overabundance of characters with hard-to-pronounces names, yet the fantasy world begs for fantastic names. There are a few easy names as well: Robb Stark, Jon Snow. My current work is a fantasy novel where all the names are short: Po, Nic, Tip, Dee. How do you name your “babies?”

    I’d love to hear from you.

    Keep writing & keep sharing! – Cronin Detzz

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  18. Pingback: March: A review of my best blogging | Write me a book, John!

  19. I don’t use names from people I know, not even first names. I do want them to be individual enough not to clash with other characters by being or sounding too alike, so that’s something I try to take into account. I say ‘try’ because it doesn’t always work.

    If I am desperate for a quick fill-in character’s name, I’ll look around at the books on the shelves and see if an author’s name jumps out at me. I only ever use the first name, though.

    For main characters, the name has to sound right to me and suggest the character traits I’m after. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly how or why certain names work.

    I don’t mind a mix of exotic names, so long as there are plenty of ‘ordinary’ names as well. As a writer of sci-fi, I also run with completely alien names, but there I try to make first names sound familiar and simple so that people can pronounce them and connect with them.

    As for your question – nope, I can’t tell which names are not real. 🙂

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    • I’ve never turned to any of my books for character names. But it sounds like a good exercise for the future.

      I think some YA and sci-fi have a little more liberty when it comes to naming characters. I want most of the names in my books to sound like something you’d actually hear. I don’t think there’s any reason to overflow a crime fiction novel with odd names.

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      • Totally agree! If every character sounds mysterious or exotic, the whole comes across as contrived. I think that’s true also for sci-fi.

        I got into writing science fiction because I didn’t get what I wanted out of it as a kid. The concept was great – who doesn’t love spaceships and alien worlds and teleporters, but to me they lacked character and often humor, too. And if you got aliens, the names were often horrendous – all Xs and Ys and Zs.

        So, I might have Raoul and Nikolai and Aleisha, but I also have Jim and Helen and Charlie. Some of my alien names are Stremm, Selin and Jarn.

        Names have to sound believable.

        Cheers! 🙂

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      • Yep. No one likes reading names that look like a jumble a letters thrown together.

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      • Yes. It also shows the author hasn’t put a lot of thought into it. A put-off right there. 🙂

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  20. Pingback: Sharing as you Write | Write me a book, John!

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