Eight Tips for Perfect Character Names

costumes, illustration for character names article

One of the most challenging writing tasks is coming up with the perfect names for your characters. You can end your naming frustrations by trying these eight techniques.

1. Gather some resources

Every writer’s library should have a few name collections. Of course, baby name books are a great first names. For first and last names, great collections include school yearbooks, phone books, business directories, and any books with long bibliographies or citation lists. If you’re at the latest superhero film and waiting for the after-credits scene, you can spend that time watching the credits and taking note of any interesting names.

You can also collect some character names during your next trip to the library. While you’re browsing the shelves, write down any interesting author or illustrator names you happen to come across. Name collecting is a great excuse to browse sections you never normally visit.

Walking through your local cemetery or browsing obituaries are great ways to find interesting character names, especially names for historical pieces. If that sounds a little too morbid to you, the Social Security Administration keeps records of popular baby names for recent and historical periods.

Be sure to mix first and last names to create original combinations. You don’t want to offend anyone by naming a villain after them. More importantly, copying someone’s full name could put you at risk of a lawsuit.

2. Ask their parents

Who are the character’s parents? Where do they live? What do they value? What are their interests and hobbies? Mulling over these questions will help you find character names that are rich with meaning and backstory.

Are their parents religious? If their parents are Christians, consider names from the Bible or other religious figures. Other characters might name their children after gods or characters from local mythology. An atheist might name her children after famous scientists.

Children’s names often come from their parents goals for them. They might name a child after the personality traits they hope the child will embody, such as Hope or Faith. They might name their children after prominent members of the upper class, such as Elon or Kylie, hoping they will grow up to be as successful as their namesakes. If the parents are chefs, they may try to pass on their food-loving ways by naming their children Ginger or Pepper.

If their parents are big movie buffs, consider the names of famous actors. Fans of genre literature might name their kids after their favorite science fiction or fantasy characters. Video game fans might name their kids Lara or Gordon. Just stay away from super-iconic names like Mario or Zelda.

If a character has a troubled relationship with their parents, they may end up using a different name than the one they were given. Jack Smith may take his fiancée’s more unique last name, Abernathy, as a way of rejecting his family’s “boring” name and lifestyle. Magnolia may be embarrassed by her hippie parents and decide to call herself “Maggie” instead.

3. Examine the setting

If your story takes place in a historical period, this will impact what character names sound realistic and what names sound out of place. Many modern names didn’t even exist a century ago. If you have characters of different ages, be sure to look at naming patterns in their individual generations.

Before trains and other means of long-distance travel, many families ended up with surnames based on their location. A family could be named Green because they lived on the village green or Tower because they lived in a tower. If you are writing a science fiction story, you could give a family of moon colonists the surname Luna. Your family of asteroid miners could be the Astras. Androids could have surnames taken from the companies that designed them.

Historically, many last names came from professions. A family could be named Smith because of a blacksmith ancestor, or Baker because of an ancestor who ran a bakery, or Hooker because… well, you get the idea. If you are writing a post-apocalyptic story, last names could come from “professions” like Scavenger, Raider, or Exile.

Another thing to consider with science fiction stories is how names might change in the future. Currently, many names we consider “girl” names used to be “boy” names, such as Ashley, Gale, and Lauren. What currently male names might make the switch later on? Will we have names that go the other direction? Or will names become more androgynous, with more names acceptable for people of either (or neither) gender?

4. Take inspiration from nature

Plants and animals can be a good source of character names. You can use a plant or animal’s common name, scientific name, or other variations. Consider any connotations or symbolism in the name that might relate to your character. A character named Leaf may be light on his feet, acrobatic, tumbling like a leaf on the wind. A character named Ocean may be deep and peaceful. A character named Forrest may not be a smart man, but know what love is.

Suzanne Collins, author of the “Hunger Games” series, took protagonist Katniss Everdeen’s name from an aquatic plant. In the Twilight series, protagonist Bella Swan’s name is a reference both to the animal and to the “Ugly Duckling” story.

5. Consider their story role

One of the ways to signal a character’s importance to readers is to introduce them with both a first and last name. If you bring “Evan McDaniel” onstage, readers will assume that this will be a reoccurring character with some significance to the plot. However, you can signal that a character is just a background extra by calling them “the salesman” or “the man in the blue shirt”.

Of course, many times we are given limited information about a character at the start of a story because we will learn more about them later. If you want your readers to know that “the salesman” is someone they should pay attention to, you will have to give other cues to make up for his lack of a name. The easiest way to do this is just to show another character being interested in this nameless person. “I’m going to follow this salesman until I discover why he smells like meatloaf!”

You can also use character names to signal a character’s goal. If your character’s arc is about their struggle to stand out and be noticed, you could give them a common, “plain” name like David or Jane. If your character’s goal is to find someplace they belong, you can use their name to show that they’re an outsider. If you are writing a story set in an American high school in 2020, readers will probably assume that characters named Emma and Addison are more popular than characters named Edith or Gertrude.

You can also set a character apart with other types of contrast. A character named Gilbert may not feel as “macho” as his friends Hogan, Butch, and Duke. Melvin may not be let into the cool nightclub, while Antonio, Gavin, and Juan walk right in. If you are writing a fantasy story, you can set apart the only elf in the village by naming everyone else Faith, Charlotte, and Lydia, but naming her Zestari or Alaglossia.

If you need a name for a side character, you can show their close relationship to the protagonist by giving them a nickname. A character named Catherine might only let her boyfriend call her “Cat”. A macho hero might be Sargent to everyone but his mother, the only one who still calls him Georgie.

6. Character names can hint at personality or appearance

You can use character names to hint at a character’s personality, morals, and even worldview. A character with the last name Fox might be particularly clever or sneaky. A character named Knight might be gallant and heroic.

This tactic can come across as hacky or annoying when it is done too often or too blatantly, so use some restraint. Unless you are writing for children, naming a werewolf “Remus Lupin” is probably overdoing it. If you name a cannibal “Hannibal”, the book had better be so amazing that your readers won’t care. If you name an Asian character “Chyna”, you should be ashamed of yourself.

If you are a particularly visual person, you may find it helpful to use pictures as character references while you are writing. Many writers find that a photo helps them develop a character’s personality and mannerisms as they imagine what the person in the photo might be like. Photo references can also be helpful in coming up with character names, as the people in the photos may just “look like a Greg” or “look like a Portia”.

One way to determine if your character’s name suits them or sounds right is to use it as an adjective. What is your character’s primary personality trait or habit? If their friends said “You’re being so Dave today” or “Stop being such a Penny”, what would they mean?

Names can even hint at character flaws. Imagine you have a character that is known for being clumsy. They bump into a table and knock a pile of dishes to the floor. Their friends say, “Oh, you really pulled a ___ there!” What name just sounds right?

“Bob” doesn’t fit. Bob is a reserved, unassuming name. Bob would never end up the center of attention. What about “Kenneth”? Kenneth has that great k sound, like crash and kaboom. I can easily picture his friends calling having an accident “pulling a Kenny”.

7. Creating new names

If you are creating new character names, one approach is to look through lists of prefixes and suffixes and combine them until you come up with something that sounds right.

For example, the prefix mid- (middle) and the suffix –ic (relating to) could be combined to Middic. This character could be “in the middle” between the protagonist and antagonist, such as a double agent, a false friend, or a traitor.

If you want to make an invented name sound more masculine or feminine, consider changing the last letter. In English language names, it is common for male names to end in consonant and female names to end in a vowel. This is also true in many Germanic and Romance languages.

You can also produce unique names by coming up with an anagram of words that describe the character’s personality, appearance, or other memorable details. Bald Villain could become Anvil Allbid. Kid Sidekick could become Deckk Diskii.

Foreign words can make great character names. For example, a lazy character could be named “Mr. Abbiocco,” after the Italian word for “the need to lie down, especially after eating heartily.”

However, if you are inventing names, check Google to see if your made-up word is actually a word in another language. You don’t want to publish an epic fantasy trilogy and then discover you accidentally named your hero after the German word for “pig nipples”.

8. Phonetic symbolism

Phonetic symbolism is the relationship between sound and meaning. (1) Writers can take advantage of this property of words to make their character names better fitting and more memorable.

Studies have shown that consumers unconsciously use the sound of brand names to evaluate the brands themselves. The sounds of brand names can indicate qualities like strength, beauty, size, weight, and more. (2)

Similarly, phonetic symbolism can be used to give fictional characters names that represent their physical or psychological qualities. Writers can use this tool to give protagonists more heroic-sounding names, antagonists more evil-sounding names, and to give readers clearer quick impressions of minor characters, even if they only appear for a single paragraph. When characters have names that suit their personalities and story roles, readers will find the story more enjoyable to read and be more likely to purchase your work.

What kind of associations can writers create between the sound of their characters’ names and the characters’ personalities? It turns out, quite a lot!

People tend to associate round” sounds with round shapes, and “sharp” sounds with pointed shapes. This association is known as the “Bouba–Kiki effect”. In psychological experiments, volunteers are shown two abstract shapes, one rounded and the other jagged. When they are asked which one is named Bouba and which one is named Kiki, the majority of people name the rounded shape Bouba and the jagged shape Kiki.

Although the effect has mostly been studied with non-words, there is some research to show that it extends to real words and real first names. The phonemes /b/, /m/, /l/, /n/, /u/, and /o/ tend to be associated with rounded shapes. The phonemes /k/, /p/, /t/, /i/, and /ʌ/ tend to be associated with sharp shapes. (1)

Research has also connected sharp shapes with “sharp” personality traits like “angry” and “jumpy”, and round shapes with “round” personality traits like “funny” and “easygoing”. Even gender seems to have a shape. Studies show that people tend to associate jagged shapes with male names and rounded shapes with female names. (1)

If a character is portly or has a bubbly personality, you can use a “round” name to hint at this, such as Bubba or Molly. If a character has sharp features or a prickly personality, you can use a “sharp” name like Aki or Katia.

Paying attention to high-front and low-back vowels could be used to give characters names that sound big and tough or small and cutesy. Psychological research into sound symbolism has also determined that high-front vowels like /i/ and /I/ sound “large” and “powerful”. Low-back vowels like /ɔ/ sound “smaller” and “less powerful”. (2) Low-back vowels are spoken with the tong low and in the back of the mouth, but high-front vowels are spoken with the tongue raised and toward the front of the mouth. It’s almost as if the speaker were demonstrating how “big” the word is with the position of their tongue.

Sounds have also been found to be associated with a variety of opposing characteristics, most related to evaluations of “bad” or “good”. Studies show /i/ is associated with hard, angular, and fast, but /a/ is associated with soft, rounded, and slow. (3) Carefully selecting the vowel sounds in your characters’ names can be used to create similar associations in your readers’ minds.

While phonetic symbolism can help you give a character more definition in a reader’s mind, the method does have its limitations. The character’s age, educational level, economic status, and other personal details can also impact how readers view characters. However, if readers learn the character’s name before they learn the other details, the sound of the name will have greater influence.

If you give a character a common name, such as John or Mary, your readers may know someone with that name and their relationship will color how they perceive the character. As a result, the influence of phonetic symbolism may be more powerful with invented names, such as names in alien or fantasy languages. Your readers probably have never met a Giffle or R’Tarnak! The research seems to back up the advantages of invented names. Most research into phonetic symbolism uses non-words like Bouba and Kiki.

While phonetic symbolism cannot be the only tool in your character creation toolbox, it is certainly a powerful one. Give it a try when you’re deciding what to name your next great protagonist or villain, and ask your readers what they think.

Things to avoid

Unless you’ve already published your book, don’t feel like you’re stuck with a character’s name. If you are halfway through writing a story and a character’s name doesn’t seem to “fit” them anymore, try something new.

Don’t give your cast of characters similar names. If you write a story about Evan, Ethan, and Elian, your readers will quickly get confused about who is who and put down your book. If possible, avoid names that begin with the same letter or that rhyme. (Unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien.)

Unless you are writing a children’s book, avoid names that rhyme with other repeatedly-used words. Rhymes can get annoying pretty quickly:

“Forde was bored out of his gourd. His sword had gored hordes from fjord to seaboard, but now Forde was ignored by every warlord he moved toward, so his sword was stored under the floorboard.”

With very few exceptions, you shouldn’t name a character something that is impossible for your readers to pronounce. If you are writing a Lovecraft-style eldritch entity that is so powerful as to be beyond human understanding, sure, go ahead and name it B’lyet’chaxth. But if you’re writing a character people are supposed to relate to, give them a relatable name. Nobody wants to read a fantasy adventure about Gibberish String the Barbarian.

Don’t have your works translated without checking to see if your character’s name sounds obscene in the new language. Norwegian author Jo Nesbø manages to sell mystery novels in America despite his detective being named “Harry Hole”, but you might not be so lucky.

Works Cited

(1) David M. Sidhu and Penny M. Pexman – “What’s in a Name? Sound Symbolism and Gender in First Names”
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4446333/ – Retrieved 2/2/2020

(2) Tina M. Lowrey and L. J. Shrum (2006) ,”Phonetic Symbolism and Brand Name Preference”, in LA – Latin American Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, https://www.academia.edu/24250963/Phonetic_Symbolism_and_Brand_Name_Preference – Retrieved 3/28/2020

(3) Patrice L. French (1977), “Toward an Explanation of Phonetic Symbolism”, Word
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00437956.1977.11435647 – Retrieved 3/28/20

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