Wednesday, April 13, 2011

N is for Names

As a writer, I like to feel that I’ve gotten a character’s name right. A name gives a first impression of the character. Some names seem to go with certain traits. You could argue that once you get to know a character, the name doesn’t matter, and a compelling character will intrigue the reader no matter what her name. True. But how do you feel about your own name? Did you always like it?

Names are pretty important to 8 to 12-year-olds.

They sometimes explore different variations of their own name and they are interested in what their name means. They might take on or suddenly reject a cute family nickname, or decide they’d rather be called by their middle name.

Kids also like to experiment with names while they play. They give their action figures names of friends and names of characters they’ve seen in books or on TV. They are creative and make up unusual names.

Names can be tied to a lot of emotion. What if you have a cultural name that sounds funny to people of another culture? What if people tease you because your name is unusual or different? What if your name is boring and you want to shine like a star?

I’ve even seen some kids consider rejecting a book because they don’t like the main character’s name.

Here are a few considerations when coming up with character names:

Remember your story world. Depending on your setting and time period, readers will expect certain types of names. You can find popular names for a specific year in the U.S. by consulting the Social Security Popular Names database.

Set characters apart. Think about the names of all the characters in your story, including minor ones. Names that sound the same or even start with the same letter can be confusing for your readers.

Reality or fiction. Think hard before you decide to use a real person’s name for a character. I actually make an effort not to use the names of people I know. For me, it’s easier to avoid comparisons between real and fictitious personalities.

Be original. Kids may be intrigued by names they’ve never heard before. Also, think about what other book characters might already have the name you choose. Could you ever name a character Hermione after the strong impression left by J.K. Rowling’s character?

Do you have any good tips for coming up with character names? What is most important to you in choosing names for your characters?

*As always, if you know of a good article or resource on this topic, let me know so I can add it to the list.

Check out It's resource for finding names with interesting posts like, Cool Baby Names: The –Er Names.

Jan Fields talks about considerations for character names in children’s stories.

At Let the Words Flow, Biljana Likic discusses some issues related to naming characters and Samny Bina gives us some great resources for finding names.

Sherrie Peterson talks about researching the meaning behind a character's name.

Gail Carson Levine considers finding a suitable character name.

Over at Nouveau Writer, Hannah Gilead gives us a thorough discussion of how much character names matter.

Plot to Punctuation describes effective ways to use nicknames.

Darcy Pattison has some strategies for coming up with nicknames.

Fellow blogger Skye suggests a resource for looking up theme names.

Livia Blackburne at A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing has an interesting discussion about the sounds of names.


  1. I wish I had tips but I don't. I just use all my favorite names or the names that seem to go with the character's personality. if someone's a different nationality I'll type in say - Greek first names. And see what comes up.

  2. Names are so important. I often google names for various genres. I also have names just come to me that I think fit.


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  3. Names are definitely important. I like to check out when I'm naming characters, since it has a special section for "theme" names.

    I love how JK Rowling uses alliteration (eg. Severus Snape, Minerva McGonagall, Godric Gryffindor) to make her characters' names memorable for kids.

  4. I think names are so important, I love finding just the right name for a character and I can't write anything till I have my names chosen. Rowling's names are great, except... I have to confess I never much liked the name Harry Potter *shock*

    One pet peeve I have is books that give the main character an unusual name and spend several paragraphs on the first page or two explaining why they're called that. I've seen it so much lately and it drives me nuts - yes, we get it, you're clever and your character is unique and the name is all symbolic and... *just get to the bloody story*

  5. Names are the hardest part for me, so I love this post. I HAVE to love the names of my main characters and secondaries. They usually end up being the names I never named my children but wanted to. I've also read that protags should have an interesting/unique name.

    I renamed one character 4 times because it just didn't feel right. It was a search & replace nightmare.

  6. Brooke and Girl Friday, I have to get the names right too, otherwise I can't write my story.

    Skye, thanks for the link. I've added to the post. It's interesting that J.K. uses alliteration. I've read a lot of writing books that advise against that, but it does make the characters more memorable.

  7. What a great post. I love the links you've provided. Names are so important and with every novel that I write, I realize the names I choose have to also be names that I'm willing to 'hear' and write a million times too!

  8. That's a good point, Christy. I sometimes find that if I feel so-so about a name, I end up coming to like it the more I use it.


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