How to Name a Character

In a recent Ask Me Anything, Emily Scott asked:

“What system/steps do you personally work through when developing a new character?”

It took me a little while to think how to answer that question, because at this point those steps are so ingrained in my writing behaviours that I’m barely conscious of them.  In Create an Epic Character Foundation, I go over the areas I explore once I have the bare bones of a character already in mind, but those come later.

The first steps of character creation are, for me, much simpler.  When I’m creating a character from scratch, I figure out three things right off the bat:

1. Their name
2. Their physicality, including what they sound like
3. Who is most important to them

In this series, I’ll be covering one step per post, to give you a sense of why I think it’s important, how I figure it out for my characters, and various tips and tricks to help you on your own way.

How to name a character: delve into this first step in the character creation process and find out where to look, what to look for, and what to avoid when naming the characters in your novel! // Something Delicious

“And this is Nymphadora-"

"Don't call me Nymphadora, Remus," said the young witch with a shudder. "It's Tonks."

"-Nymphadora Tonks, who prefers to be known by her surname only," finished Lupin.

"So would you if your fool of a mother had called you 'Nymphadora,' " muttered Tonks.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

For some writers, a name is just a name. They pick a random name from the telephone book and toss it in for their first draft, and do a quick Find and Replace for subsequent drafts if and when they want to change it. The name may come to be significant or it could be just a name.

I tend to go more by instinct. Even if I change a name later on, it has to feel right at the get-go, at least.

What does it mean for a name to “feel right,” though?

Like anything instinctual, it’s hard to describe, but if I scan through a list of popular baby names from the 1980s (or whenever my character was born), I’ll feel my gaze hitch on certain names. I write these names down and, unless I’ve found one that’s positively screaming “YES, YES, IT’S ME!” I’ll find another list, or I’ll use a random name generator, or I’ll flip through the novels from my collection, and I’ll write down more names that catch my eye.

After that, I sit with those names for a little while. I’ll cross out any that feel kind of “meh.” If any of them are similar to each other, I’ll pick my favourite of the two.

Before long, I end up with a shortlist of potential names for my character, and this is when I start to dig a little deeper, if I haven’t settled on one already.

My way of digging a little deeper?

Using sources like Behind the Name and Nameberry to investigate the meanings and origins of the names I’ve honed in on. If it turns out that a name has a meaning completely opposite to how I feel about that character, I toss it out. Other times, there won’t be much of a meaning associated with it at all, and I’ll have to go back to thinking about it in terms of how it sounds, how it feels, how it looks on the page.

One of the things Charles Dickens was known for was giving his characters names that fit their personalities to a ‘T’, like Polly Toodle, a “plump rosy-cheeked wholesome apple-faced young woman,” or Uriah Heep, an unscrupulous, vile law clerk. I don’t take it quite that far (few writers are talented enough to pull that off without it being laughable), but I have a sense of when a name fits or it doesn’t.

I think part of the process is about letting go of needing to find the “perfect” name and instead focussing on finding the “right” name (click to tweet this!). Otherwise, you run the risk of populating your book with stereotypes rather than people.

( After writing this post, I was pointed towards  I haven't used it very much yet, but I love the information they've compiled!  Do a search for your name to see what comes up and you'll see what I mean. )

As an example ...

I named one of my characters Jade because, at the time, she was loosely based on Jay Gatsby, and I wanted a name that was similar without being identical. It felt right, too. It was only in the second draft, though, that I realized how perfect the name was for her: she is incredibly jaded about certain aspects of her life, and figuring that out was the key to the entire story.

If I had that in mind when I was getting to know her in the first place, though, and thought, “Hey, she’s jaded … let’s call her Jade! Hrr hrr …”

Yeah ... that would have been a bit much.

What's in a name?

I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with picking any old name and just running with it.  You can absolutely change it once you know more about the character, maybe in the second draft, or the fourth, or the seventh!

On the other hand, there's power and meaning in a name, and you can use that to your advantage in the character creation process to give you a firm grasp on who exactly you're working with.

“A name can't begin to encompass the sum of all her parts. But that's the magic of names, isn't it? That the complex, contradictory individuals we are can be called up complete and whole in another mind through the simple sorcery of a name.”

Charles de Lint, Dreams Underfoot

A character's name could reflect a connection to their ancestry.

They could be named after a beloved family member they've never met but are expected to live up to.

They might be in the witness protection program or otherwise on the run.

They could have started using their middle name in college to signify a fresh start.

Negative associations with an abusive namesake might have led them to change their name.

And then there's Voldemort.

Other places to look for names

If you're not having any luck sourcing a name for a character, why not try:

  • scoping out your family tree
  • browsing the authors of all the books on your bookshelves
  • investigating lists of inventors, athletes, or actors
  • looking at your old yearbooks
  • browsing through the newspaper
  • flipping through a stack of comics
  • opening an atlas to a random page, closing your eyes, and pointing
  • reading old census records
  • looking at old passenger lists for ship crossings

When you're ready, make sure to check out Step Two in my character creation process: sorting out your character's physicality.  In the meantime, I'd love to know how you figure out names for your characters and, just for fun, your favourite character names!  I have a soft spot for Nymphadora Tonks, but I also love names like Frodo Baggins, Tony Stark, and Magwitch.

Interested in some worksheets to help you delve into the naming process with your character(s)?  Click here to get your very own set of character creation worksheets.

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