How to Name a Character

When creating a character from scratch, I often 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, sharing why each one is important, how I figure it out for my own characters, and tips and tricks to help you on your way.

"Anne is a real good plain sensible name. You’ve no need to be ashamed of it."

"Oh, I’m not ashamed of it," explained Anne, "only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordelia—at least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Anne please call me Anne spelled with an E."

"What difference does it make how it’s spelled?" asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

"Oh, it makes such a difference. It looks so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia."

Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

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.

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?

I use 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.

It's worth noting that the meanings and origins listed on sites like these may at times be incorrect, so take what they suggest not as a definite but a solid place to begin!

Keep in mind that if you're naming a character whose cultural background differs from yours, especially if that culture is often marginalized or discriminated against, you'll need to research how names are chosen within that culture and what weight different names carry. The best resource I've found as a starting point for looking into this is Writing with Color, a Tumblr blog that's constantly updated with new resources on writing about people of colour. Click here to see all their posts on naming a character!

How fitting does a name need to be?

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.

Part of the process is about releasing the need to find the “perfect” name and instead focusing on finding the “right” name. Otherwise, you run the risk of populating your book with stereotypes rather than people.

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!" Well ... that would have been a bit much.

What's in a name?

There's nothing wrong with picking any old name and running with it as a placeholder. 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.

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 to move on from choosing a name for your character, make sure to check out Step Two in my character creation process: sorting out your character's physicality.

If you're interested in the free worksheets that accompany this blog post series, click below to download whichever ones catch your fancy. No email sign-up necessary!

Character Creation: The Name Game Worksheet
Character Creation: Important Relationships Worksheet
Character Creation: Physicality Worksheet

If you already know these things about your character, you just might be ready to Create an Epic Character Foundation.