Monday, January 20, 2014

What's in a Name? Naming Your Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Shakespeare said it best, and names carry a lot of weight in a novel. They're often the first thing we know about a character and we make assumptions based on that name--gender, ethnicity, personality, culture. We're not trying to judge them, it's just mentally trying to figure out a story and where everyone and everything fits.

What we name someone matters, because it's an opportunity to convey information to readers under the radar. A first impression, or a hint at who they are.

Say a character walks onto the page. All you know is the name this person gives you.

"I'm John."

What do you know? That this is a male character. You might make assumptions based on the Johns you know, but the name itself offers no clues about the character. But what if he introduced himself as:
  • Jean
  • Giovanni
  • Juan
  • Johann
You get a different image for each of these, though they're all forms of John. They have culture and, yes, stereotypes, associated with them that convey more than just a name.

While a few additional details attached to a name might not seem like a big deal, those details can create images and assumptions about a character that show aspects of that character. Juan is suddenly from a Hispanic family, Giovanni is Italian, Jean is likely French. What details you add to that will suggest even more to readers and allow them to paint a better picture about this person without you having to dump a lot of information on them.

There was a great scene in a recent episode of the TV show Castle where two of the characters-- police detectives--are trapped in a burning building when one detective's wife goes into labor. He's on the phone with her and they're picking names for the baby he might not live to see. He says if it's a boy, name him Javier after his partner, who is there beside him. The partner later jokes about him naming a white Irish kid "Javier."

(More tips on creating names for characters here)

But let's take this beyond the show and think about this kid as character in one of our books. Imagine meeting a red-haired Irish guy named Javier. It would be strange, different, interesting. You'd assume the guy's mother was Hispanic, which would make sense. But then you find out she's not, and this becomes even more intriguing. Eventually you find out the backstory and how his father died in the line of duty, or maybe his partner saved his life and but perished in the attempt. Suddenly, this incongruous name carries a lot of weight and says a lot about this person. It would have shaped his personality in a very different way than had he been called a common Irish name like Ryan or Ian.

Naturally not every name has to have a story behind it, and doing it too much would actually become distracting for the reader, but if there is a reason for a character to have an unusual name, consider using it to deepen that character and the story.


Be wary of names with meaning. Baby name books and sites are great, but don't pick a name heavy with meaning and then use that as a shortcut to character development--name a character Grace and then make her a ballet dancer who flows across the room like water. Or the opposite--a Grace who trips over her own feet every step. If a character's name means something, make it part of who they are, not a descriptive tag. Think about why they were named that and how that shaped them as a person.

For the rest of the characters? Let's look at some common naming guidelines.

Basic Naming Guidelines

Use a different letter for each name: It's hard for readers to remember who's who between Ashley, Amanda, and Alice.

Avoid similar looking names: This holds true for Hannah, Tannis, and Annabeth. Yes, they're different, but readers can see them as "the names with the Ns" and mix them up.

Avoid similar sounding names:
Such as Bill, Will, and Phil for the same reason.

(More on naming characters here)

Extra Tips for Genre Names

Science fiction and fantasy has a whole slew of other issues when it comes to naming characters, because the names are often made up to fit the created worlds.

Make sure the names are pronounceable:
Think about names like Kha'viiikmx and Gootphisistuvvyne and how readers are going deal with those. They're impossible to say and stop the story cold whenever you hit one. Odds are the reader will simply skim it, and do you really want them skimming over a major character?

Think about the naming conventions of the cultures you've created:
Just like different cultures have different variations of names (such as John), alien or fantasy cultures would also have names that reflect that culture. Kha'viiikmx is not a name you'd likely see in the same family as Nya, or even the same city. Maybe not even the same planet.

Think about naming conventions for both places and people: Many science fiction or fantasy names could apply to characters as well as settings. Consider ways to show the difference that makes it easier for your readers to know if Hundar is a person, a place, or a tasty dish served at the inn.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Character Name

What image will this name conjure in the average reader's mind? Every generation has the cool names and the uncool names. It's unfair, but true. Defying stereotypes is great, but unless that's part of the story, it can seem like you're making fun of your own character. If you don't take her seriously, why should readers?

What associations already exist with this name? Name a character Adolf and you get all the historical baggage that comes with it. Some names become iconic for good and bad reasons and we can't hear them without thinking about the person who made them famous.

What do you want to say about this character with this name? A character who is an old soul or old fashioned might have a name associated with another generation, or someone who is free-spirited might have a name that's a bit out there. It could be a family trait or a nickname they choose themselves.

What expectations are you looking to defy with this name?
Maybe you want your Adolf to be a proponent of equality and rage against prejudice, and he's that way because of his name. Or maybe you want the popular jock to have a name typically associated with the least popular kid in school. If there's a reason for the defiance, it could be a powerful name for a character.

How does this name fit with the rest of the names in the novel? While you don't want all your names to feel the same, they ought to be consistent with the world and story. It's a pet peeve of mine when I see a real world name pop up in a fantasy novel. It always jars me out of the story. Consider how your names are going to appear together and if any of them seem out of place.

Names play an important role in shaping our characters and our stories, so choose the ones that best exemplify that character or role they play.

ETA: Coincidentally, I just now read a fascinating study on names and regions that fits perfectly with all this.

What are some of your favorite names? How about your least favorites names? Why?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Wow, this is so detailed and a really helpful guideline - thank you. =) The "not-very-pronounceable" names here made me laugh!

    1. Most welcome, and thanks! I had fun making those up. Sadly, they are not nearly as bad as some I've actually used in my very early fantasy novels. Which shall remained trunked forever.

  2. I generally don't think too much about naming the characters. During my last novel, I had thirty named characters, and there's a point where getting the perfect name starts to become not a good use of time. I don't believe that a name shapes a character; it's my characterization that does, and the name grows to fit the character.

    I do try to pick names that will fit into the location the story is set. For a fantasy, I might pick all Latin names, or for a story set in Los Angeles, I'll make sure I include a Hispanic character with either a Hispanic first or last name. Newspaper obituaries are great for getting names that fit in with the area.

    1. Well true, you won't spend that much time on every name, but the important ones can benefit from more attention to it. But if you use other tools to help develop your characters that's great.

    2. One of the problems though is that we really can't guess how readers may interpret the name -- and it may be completely different than how we think. Or for that matter, the may miss the intention entirely. I'm not detail-oriented, so if the writer puts a detail into the naming of the character, it's likely to be completely lost on people like me.

    3. This is also true, but that holds true for so many things. We can't control how a reader will take something or what they will get.

      If names isn't a thing you find value in, I wouldn't waste time on it. There are plenty of other things you can do to help develop characters. It's just one more tool for the toolbox, but you certainly don't have to use it if you prefer another.

      Good points though, as it shows not everyone will do things the same way.

  3. Aww, I watched that Castle episode and kept thinking, "they can't both die." When I'm stumped for a name for one of my teenage characters, I'll sometimes check out the Facebook friends of my nephew's girlfriend. With 500+ friends, there are a lot of modern-day names to choose from.

    1. I was actually hoping the baby would be a boy. Good tip on checking Facebook. Lots of names out there.

  4. This is fantastic! Naming is one of my favorite parts of writing, and it's usually the first thing that hits me for a new story. Love the Castle example. I once met a priest who was from Vietnam by birth, but had left during the war and grown up in Australia. When he spoke, it was with a heavy Australian accent, which he said always made for some interesting looks and a great opportunity to tell his tale!

    1. That's awesome. It's just proves that people can be anything and the most interesting ones are often the ones who are a little different. A protagonist is supposed to be special or different, and this is one way to achieve that.

  5. In the WIP I'm working on right now, I had specific goals for the main character names. The trogg-like character is Rhona, a name she chose for herself when she left her family in order to protect her sister. (She'd been cursed into that form.) I chose the name for her because it sounds similar to ronin, which has a parallel connection. The wizard goes by Lycurgus, which is a Greek name meaning deed of the wolf. It's not as tight a parallel, but he is a man who is suffering terribly based on something out of his past. And for him, too, it's not the name he was born with. He was originally known as Magnus--meaning great, and he had been, the greatest mage of his kingdom.

    Most of the time though, I don't go quite that deep. Sometimes it's just something that pops out at me. In another WIP, two of the main characters are Jana and Daira. I like J names, and Jana is like me in many ways. Daira was a random generated name in my head and even though I've tried to tweak it to something less awkward to say, none of them feel right.

    1. Sounds great. And a good example of times when you want to go deeper into names and times when you just pick something you like.

      I like J-names, too. Must be a J-name thing. (grin)

  6. I remember doing some research for names for a novella I did. I had to stop myself from making sing-songy names like Melody and her pet's name of Harmony lol!!

    1. LOL good for you! I've no doubt there are books where that would really suit, but it's usually better to avoid those.

  7. Thanks Janice, great topic. I probably spend too much time on choosing names. My WIP is set in Spain and I eventually settled on Nemesio for my faux antagonist, using the similarity to nemesis to lead the reader into thinking he was the actual antagonist.

    1. Cool name. We all spend time on the things that matter to us, and if that's your thing then embrace it. I had meanings for almost all my names in my trilogy, and it was a private joke for me (they were based on words in another language). Most readers never noticed, but some did and I loved getting those emails.

  8. Really enjoyed reading this post. Lots of fantastic tips.

    I'm a huge online gamer. Not Facebook games, but online MMORPGS (massive multi-player online role-playing games). I create new characters on a regular basis. Thinking up a good name is a big deal to me. I really hate it when another player has put no thought into their character name. Like "Dude123" etc.

    So I developed a little strategy for my character naming. Since I mostly play fantasy or medieval type games, I look for names that suit those genres. Take any 2-3 consonants and a few vowels. Write them down. Mix and match until you find one you like best. You don't have to use all the letters. It's just a guideline.

    Ex: KSTL IA

    And so on. You can create some completely new and interesting names this way. Even names no one has heard before. This would work for alien or sci-fi naming too.

    1. Major gamer here myself. I have a set of names I always use, but sometimes you just need to add a new one.

      Great tip on the letter mixing.

  9. I liked your Grace example, especially since that's my real-life name. :) When my parents were trying to decide on a name for me and mom suggested Grace, my dad said `but what if she turns out to be clumsy?' Mom said that wasn't the sort of grace she was thinking of. She wanted to name me Grace because God was gracious to send them another daughter. :) When I think about my name and its meaning, I feel cherished.

    1. Aw, that's so nice. I actually have a character named Grace in a back-burnered novel with similar meaning to her name. But it's also a little too on the nose so I might end up changing it.

  10. Well you were already my favorite writing blogger and then you mentioned Castle, and well I didn't think I could possibly like you more but I do. That scene from Castle cracked me up! Anyhow, I really enjoy naming characters and find that it is exactly how it was when I named my own children. I had a list of possible ideas and I just KNEW when I hit on the right one.

    1. LOL score! Names do work that way. Ya just know.

  11. Great blog again! I was wondering something tho, in the book you have used various dutch words for names of both people and places. Did you do that on purpose or accidentically? Since ironically they do kind of make sence..

    1. A late reply to this (sorry! somehow missed the comment) but...

      I did it on purpose. I wanted the names to have meanings, even if I was the only one who knew them.

  12. I just recently discovered this site, and I have to say it's been really helpful! In my past writing, naming my characters for some reason has made me develop ideas about them that I'd much rather figure out as they develop through the story. I've recently started an experimental set of short stories that may grow into something bigger, but I decided not to name the protagonists at all until they're almost fully developed. It's kind of strange, writing about a character with no name yet, but I've found that it's actually easier to name someone effectively once you know more about them. Naming my characters is now more of a journey of discovery for me. Thanks for the great blog!

    1. Welcome to the site! Good to have you.

      It's not strange. I do that a lot with secondary characters, though I haven't with main characters yet. I also develop my characters as I write and find out who they are after I put them through the story, so I can totally understand that.

  13. Thank you for this article. It has been helpful. But I still face a naming problem. I've been working on a story where the protagonist and the antagonist have names beginning with the same letter. One is Michael Devlin (Sometimes Mike or Michael, bu usually just called Devlin). The other is Dmitri Kostov (Referred to as Kostov most of the time, but is sometimes either Dmitri or Dima)

    If they're in a scene together, the names depend on whose POV is being used. So occasionally, I will have Devlin and Dmitri.

    At different times, I've changed their names and continued the story. But they just don't "feel right." (Devlin's a "devil" and "Dima" feels more intimate than "Kolya" the nickname for "Nikolai.")

    Any advice you could offer would be helpful.

    1. I think it'll depend on how often you call them by different names and who's POV you're in. If you always call them Devil and Kostov in the narrative, but then in dialog (internal or external) they're called other names by different people, you'll probably be fine.

      For example, if Jane always calls Kostov Dima, but Devlin always calls him Kostov, then readers will be able to keep that straight.

  14. Good information. Thanks.