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Writing: 15 Ways to Choose Characters’ Names

memorial to Father Joy

A brilliant name for a priest, spotted on a memorial in Winchester Cathedral, the burial place of Jane Austen: Father Joy. (Photo: Debbie Young)

Choosing the right name for the characters you create in your fiction is ultimately a matter of knowing what feels right – you’ll know when you’ve hit upon the best match.

  • Would Scrooge have become such a symbol of parsimony if Dickens had name him Smith?
  • Would Paddington Bear sound as adorable if named after Waterloo Station?
  • Would the Wizard of Oz be as awesome if he lived in any lesser-named land?

“For me, the name has always come before the character,” says Dan Holloway, novelist, poet and ALLi’s News Editor. “I will often find the narrative taking a direction driven by the personality the character’s name dictates. I find names tend to be a very auditory thing – they need to sound right and that sound will suggest a context for them. Agatha Christie was exceptionally good at naming characters in this way, and it’s one of those things that when an author doesn’t quite get it right can make a book really grate, but when they do get it right can make it really flow.”

Checklist of Ideas for Choosing Character Names

Because arriving at the solution for YOUR characters isn’t always easy, we’ve devised this a handy checklist of ideas to help you:

  1. Allow pure instinct to take over, letting your subconscious to tell you what your characters want to be called, as if they’ve chosen their own names.
  2. Use the ethnic background of the character to search online for names that are for the background, eg www.behindthename.com, www.fantasynamegenerators.com, www.20000-names.com
  3. Summon up Scrivener’s name generator, which includes the option to list them by nationalities.
  4. Google possible names to see  how they work in different contexts (also to guard against offending real people, e.g. you don’t want your sweet romantic heroine to share a moniker with a serial killer)
  5. Browse detailed maps appropriate to the character, and borrow place names – so many people were historically named after the place they came from, so such surnames sound realistic
  6. Repurpose names of people you’ve known in real life, but with first names and last names in different combinations from the originals
  7. Look up lists of names popular in the year your character would have been born – that way they’ll always be appropriate
  8. Make a note of any appealing names you come across in daily life and store them up for appropriate characters later on
  9. Recycle your friends and relations (with their permission)
  10. Name a character after a superfan as a reward for their loyalty
  11. Run a competition on your author website whereby the winner’s name is applied to a character (mind how you choose the character, though!) – a great way to promote your work-in-progress prior to publication, too
  12. Scour telephone directories –  yes, they can still be useful, even in these days of online searches
  13. Collect paint cards from DIY stores – the various shades are often imaginatively named
  14. Browse make-up counters to draw inspiration from the colours of nail polish, eyeshadow, and even perfumes
  15. Read the inscriptions on memorials such as gravestones and commemorative plaques (they may also suggest whole new story ideas)

Larger than Life?

But remember, no matter how hard we try to come up with suitable names, we’ll always come across others that make us and think to ourselves “If that was in a novel, no-one would believe it”. Mr Seymour the optician, Mr Payne the dentist, Mr Justice the judge. You really couldn’t make it up…

With thanks to ALLi authors who contributed to the recent discussion on our members-only Facebook forum that inspired this post. That forum is one of many great reasons to become a paid member of ALLi, by the way  -for more information about the many benefits of ALLi membership, click visit www.allianceindependentauthors.org.

OVER TO YOU

  • What’s your favourite character’s name? – and if it’s one you’ve created, how did you come up with it? We’d love to hear your case studies! (My own is my domineering vicar, the Reverend Neep, in my cozy mystery novel Trick or Murder? – his name just came to me out of the blue. I’m wondering whether I have ever met a real Mr Neep and found him so awful that I’ve suppressed his memory but clung on to his name as a symbol of evil?)
  • Feel free to add other resources to our checklist – all ideas welcome!
#Authors - here are 15 ways to choose a great name for characters in your fiction #writingadvice #ww - compiled by @DebbieYoungBN Click To Tweet

OTHER GREAT WRITING ADVICE
From the ALLi Author Advice Center Archive

Writing: How to Create a Language for a Fantasy Novel World

Writing: The Importance of Getting the Facts Right in Your Fiction

Good Reasons for Writing by Hand

 

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13 Responses to Writing: 15 Ways to Choose Characters’ Names

  1. Craig Warhurst February 5, 2018 at 9:25 pm #

    You can get names from anywhere if you think laterally. I was watching “The Andrew Marr Show” one morning and I suddenly thought of a French woman called Leanne Drumarchaux…

  2. Rachel McCollin January 25, 2018 at 7:48 am #

    Many years ago I created a character who’s a far-right politician and named him Leonard Trask. I’ve been asked if he’s based on Donald Trump. He’s not – but Trump keeps doing things I had Trask do and thought no-one would believe!

  3. Terry Gilbert-Fellows January 25, 2018 at 6:47 am #

    Here is one you couldn’t make up … Mr T.Bone the greengrocer does exist.

  4. Bill Cokas January 24, 2018 at 2:19 pm #

    I use the “popular names in the year your character was born” trick all the time! But lots of other good ones that hadn’t occurred to me–can’t wait to try the paint chip method!

  5. Philippa Rees January 24, 2018 at 10:13 am #

    One of my characters, a well meaning but inept retired school master was almost Trollopian, and I wondered whether I would get away with Geoffrey Mentwell? It fitted him perfectly but I have yet to complete the comedy in which he took centre stage.

  6. Simon Townley January 24, 2018 at 9:39 am #

    I used song titles from my iTunes music collection to come up with African-sounding names for a series about a prehistoric tribe. I started with Salif Keita and then, as the series expanded and I needed more and more characters and tribal names, I turned to other Malian musicians such as Rokia Traoré and then various world music stars from across Africa. I’ve been waiting for someone to notice, but I’ve not had any feedback on it. I think my favourite names would be Yorodjan (a baddie) and Harabylele (a female love interest).

    I’ve no idea what these words mean, of course. Which might come back to haunt me 🙂

  7. JJ Toner January 24, 2018 at 8:52 am #

    Hi Debbie. Your 15 suggestions are excellent. I think I’ve resorted to almost all of them. My biggest problem is populating a novel with lots of names without confusing the reader. My editor is very fussy about this, and will veto even pairs of name that end in the same letter (like Parker and Fletcher) and names that look or sound similar, like Vera and Velma.

    Lately, I’ve been toying with purely manufactured names a la Dickens. Great fun.

    By the way, I believe the mac version of Scrivener does not have the name generator.

    • Debbie Young January 24, 2018 at 12:22 pm #

      Crikey, not even allowing names that end with the same sound is very strict indeed, JJ! I confess I am slightly anxious about having two pairs of brothers in my current work-in-progress whose names begin with the same initial letter but will be asking my beta readers whether I am pushing my luck with that! The Dickensian approach does indeed sound good fun!

  8. Pauline Baird Jones January 18, 2018 at 3:54 am #

    I made the mistake of giving a semi-villain a rather silly name and then he bugged me until I gave him his own book and story. So names can come back to bite you. lol I’ve also used scifi name generators, which are pretty fun to play with.

    • Paulinette February 10, 2018 at 12:36 pm #

      Could you please share the link or name of the SCi-Fi name generators? I would really appreciate it. Thank you 🙂

  9. Cynthia Rinear Bethune January 17, 2018 at 8:55 pm #

    Thank you for all of the good suggestions — I just started to work with Scrivener and hadn’t checked out their name generator yet. After working on my big novel for a number of years, I met someone with the main character’s surname. I wanted to change it but was having trouble when my eyes landed on our ‘Bacon and Allied Families’ (yes, as in Lord Francis I am proud to say) book… my paternal grandmothers family tree. I chose the last name of my great-great grandfather and it worked even better than the original.

  10. Bonnie Hoover Braendlin January 17, 2018 at 5:43 pm #

    For the Commissario in my mystery novel Love and Death in Venice, I chose “Marcello” as a given name because it connotes toughness “like a hammer,” but the “cello” part seemed to give him a musical softness. His surname is “Rossi” because he has red hair and is nicknamed l’uomo dai capelli rossi, the red-haired one.

  11. Christopher Joyce January 17, 2018 at 5:12 pm #

    I name the animals in my kid’s books, The Creatures of Chichester based on where they live. So Purrcasso lives at the art gallery and Plectrum at the music shop.

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