Tip #37: How To Choose A Name For Your Character

Name tag

It’s a hard choice to make. Give your character the wrong name and it could break the reader’s connection with them, with all the doom and despair which follows.

Of course, there are more important things in fiction. There is plot, style and narrative. But people form their first impressions of someone in a very short time. Tell me a character is named Algobog and already I begin to form a mental image of them…

Monster
Algobog

Naming a character by genre

The genre you are writing in will go some way towards determining a character’s name. Contemporary fiction means a present-day name, no surprises there. This will also vary by location (not many named Freddy in China).

Fantasy names are generally longer or more abstract. This can take a lot of creative thinking if you want something completely original. I have no idea where Patrick Rothfuss got the name Kvothe from.

A simpler approach is to borrow from the “dead” languages. Voldemort may have Latin inspirations (vol-de-mort = flight of death). Gandalf means “wand elf” in Old Norse.

Sci-fi names tend to be shorter and a little more funky, futuristic. It can simply be a case of fitting vowel and consonant combinations together until you land on something plausible. Hariten, made that up on the spot.

Popular character names

This is the pinch. You want your reader to be able to empathise with the main character. Will you feel sympathetic towards someone named Algobog the Supreme Kaatharlek?

Monster
“Look upon my visage and despair, ye mortals!”

One method is to have a look at the most popular names for your target audience (e.g. US, UK, Kazakhstan). You can find this information online.

Harry was an excellent choice for J K Rowling, given Britain’s habit of crowning people named Harry (aka Henry). Luke in Star Wars also seemed to work.

Character names by theme

Here is a good example, Scarlett from Gone With The Wind. What do you think about a character named Scarlett? They are red. It’s the raciest of all the colours. So Scarlett is probably a loose cannon, perhaps even a little “fast” for her time.

Letting the character choose the name

There are two ways to look at this. It will tie things together if a character’s personality matches up with their name. It’s also useful to signal something to your reader via a name. In Vikingr, Ulfr is a nasty piece of work (Ulfr = wolf in Old Norse). Erikr means “alone ruler”, and it sort of makes sense. In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s name is apt for his character.

But you do not have to rely on hidden meanings. The sound of a name can give a lot away. Harsh noises like a hard A, O, F, S or T will suggest someone tough or dangerous: Severus Snape, Malfoy, Sauron, Saruman, Gandalf, Algobog.

"Cower before me!"
“Cower before me!”

Soft vowels paired with gentle consonants make for a very peaceful first impression: Frodo, Hermione, Elgerbeg.

Monster
“Cuddle much?” – Elgerbeg

If you get stuck, do not panic. Sometimes a name just feels right for a character. Other times, it’s something which grows on you. Good luck!

Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?

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13 thoughts on “Tip #37: How To Choose A Name For Your Character

  1. I couldn’t help but think of Douglas Adams’ Slartibartfast and Zaphod Beeblebrox when I read this! Naming characters is a challenge for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed someone’s name while editing. Thank God for “find and replace” 😳 As always, very useful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very wise advice…True story: I once crafted this name to denote a crafty strong willed fellow only to find it on an Urban dictionary with shall we say…unpleasant lack of sexual hygiene connections……And being 60+ and not being into social media, chat or anything like that there was no way I could have inadvertently learnt of that name…..Just as well I googled it before putting the thing to print…..You gotta larf!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve frequently altered characters’ names as the story developed. Sometimes it does take a while to find a name that ‘feels’ right, or perhaps that character alters in unexpected ways through the story (though, obviously, they are completely under our control the whole time, right?) and the original name begins to feel wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the article. The comments about sounds was very useful and I should probably apply that more to my stories. In general my names have been random with a couple of exceptions. First, my main character is a less than subtle reference to King Arthur’s sister and nemesis – Morgaine (le fay). Second, I wanted some English gentry so I went to a list of English Peerage. For my alien names, I use a name generator that seems to work well but causes my spell check fits.

    Liked by 1 person

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