This question comes from reader Puneet Agrawal, who is wondering about a seemingly simple and yet quite complicated and important question: How do you name your characters?
Where do you draw your inspiration? What’s your process? Do they just come to you or do you spend time brainstorming? Do you draw upon any resources, like baby name books or census data?
I’m personally partial to naming important characters after coffee drinks. What about you?
Art: The Gardener by Paul Cezanne
Katy Pool says
Oh my god THANK YOU for clearing up a great mystery of my life. Every time I go to Philz I look at Jacob Wonderbar and am like "did they name this after a children's book character?" Obviously it makes more sense that you named it after them!
I usually know pretty quickly when I've picked the right name for a character. I've used sites like BehindtheName and the Scrivener name generator (I like name generators primarily for minor characters). Most other names I steal from various places – literature, songs, the Bible, whatever. I am a pretty unabashed thief.
I try to come up with something memorable but not too different or cheesy. Most girls (generalizing!) have a certain obsession with names so I'm probably not alone in having a long list of names I like that I can pull from.
CMR Prindle says
Sometimes my characters already have names and I couldn't begin to tell you how they got them. I suppose they come from the same place the story idea came from, which would make sense since trying to change the name then becomes an exercise in futility.
Most times, however, I will poll people (friends, family, my various feeds/timelines, anyone standing still with a friendly looking face) for a laundry-list of names. I'll know the name when I read or hear it.
Now if someone has a recommendation for how to choose last names, I'd be much appreciative.
For first names, I tend to pick things that are considered "normal" or easily recognized, at least. Unless it's fantasy or something. Last names I generally steal from acquaintances or famous people. I also usually like to have at least one character who goes by a nickname.
In all my short stories and creative nonfiction, I've used single letters. I don't know what that means, about me or about the characters.
A.M. Guynes/Annikka Woods says
I use a site like http://www.behindthename.com. They have a random name generator that I pick the nationality(ies) I want to base my names off of and it pops up random names from the specified parameters. Sometimes I'll go looking for a specific meaning, but not always.
Curtis Edmonds says
Sometimes it's a deliberate choice. The narrator of my first novel is someone who is dealing with grief over his role in his daughter's death – but it's really NOT grief but remorse, so his name had to be "Morse." (And the female lead, naturally, is called "Dot" – but she doesn't have a sister called "Dash", because that would be silly.)
In my second novel, I have a character who is very prickly, so of course her name is "Thornhill." Her first name is "Emily," though, because one of my daughters was obsessed with that name.
The Baby Name Voyager is also very helpful – I used it to help name the male lead, because "Adam" was a big name in the 70's and 80's: https://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager#prefix=adam&sw=both&exact=false
Irene Pozoukidis says
Many times names just come to me, but there are also times when I'll pick a name based on its meaning or people that I know.
John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur says
I used to live 200 feet from an old cemetery, where I used to take our dog for afternoon walks. Whenever I was stuck for a character name, during my walks the tombstones offered up great names. For instance, once I was looking for names for two hulking henchmen of the evil mastermind, and two tombstones that I had passed dozens of times without noticing practically threw themselves in my path – Dedman, and a dozen graves away, Livingood.
I tend to check what names were in use at the time the story was set, as well as the surnames in use in the region.
I assumed that Jacob Wonderbar was named after an Anglicized version of the German word wunderbar and that you were trying to tell the reader that Jacob was wonderful.
I think it is the last names that are really hard. Luckily I live by a cemetery.
With Great difficulty…..a well-named character (i.e. Oliver Twist, Huck Finn or Dr. Who) is hard to come by…….Getting a good name for your character may be more difficult than writing a good query letter…..and perhaps more important.
Cynthia Washburn says
I've had the problem of naming a character and then changing my mind. For example, I once called a main character Adele, forgetting about the singer of the same name. Once that was pointed out to me, and my visualization of the character was very much not like the singer, I had to change it. The problem then was going back and not missing the original name in the manuscript. I have a feeling though that there is an easier way to do that somewhere in my computer!
I've often used scientific names. I figure people who recognize them will like being in on the joke.
Elisabeth Grace Foley says
Since most of my story ideas seem to start with a character, main characters' first names are kind of instinctive for me—they just pop into my head, or I fish around among names I like until one fits. (Except for one unaccommodating protagonist whom I've had to rename twice so far…)
For surnames and supporting characters, I often resort to browsing through lists—baby name sites, genealogy sites, or just the phone book. Sometimes I have a vague idea that a character's name has to begin with a certain letter or contain a certain sound, so I scribble a shortlist of names that meet the criteria and then narrow it down.
I also keep two running lists on paper, one of first names and one of surnames, as a kind of stockpile. Anything that catches my imagination goes there for future reference.
G. B. Miller says
Most of my character names come from either mythology, the occult or medieval literature. A few pop up from real world inspiration.
Still others get used from seriously old (i.e. 60's & 70's) pop culture.
Father Nature's Corner
Chris Bailey says
The origin of Jacob Wonderbar–I would never have guessed. Are you sure the coffee wasn't named after the book?
I used to agonize over the perfect character names, and I still do consult online popular baby name lists for a sense of decade and ethnicity. Two other important considerations: variations among the characters' name–and what's the possessive? For example, I would never use my father's name. Because I don't like all the Ss required to write about Ross's stuff.
Tom Bradley Jr. says
This kinds explains my approach to naming names:
Jennifer R. Hubbard says
Watch now for a rash of characters named "Java," "Latte," and "Macchiato."
I often struggle with names, but one of my favorite choices (Val Ishihara in Try Not to Breathe) got her last name from a certain test at the eye doctor's.
Fun question! A few of my names come from the intersections of towns. Every time I drove in Indiana on I-65 I thought Wolcott Chalmers sounded like a lawyer's name (and he is now a recurring character in my series). I also worked the streets on which my friends live into my novels (Greenleaf, Sheridan)–its a fun way to get minor characters.
Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale says
Character names are the LAST element to be completed when I create a character–and not by choice.
I'm terrible at character names. They simply don't come to me. I've completed penultimate final drafts with characters named AAAA or NNN (placeholders that are easy enough for Search'n'Replace), and THEN I have to find a name?
Good grief! What a chore.
So when I have to finally name a character, I look at who they are, pick an important character trait, then roam a baby name site for a name that fits that meaning.
A character is honest? Call him Frank. Is he successful? Call him Victor. Stuff like that.
One character who is beautiful and happy got named Merrybelle. Or maybe she got named that because she's loud.
I, too, am a big fan of Behind the Name (www.behindthename.com). I also get them from place names I am passing through at the time I need a name. And from movie credits. Movie credits are a great place to get an interesting mix of names.
I use the random generator under Behind the Name for secondary characters, and keep trying until I get one that I think works.
When it comes to the names of main characters, the name has to fit. I can’t write about the character for long if the name doesn’t fit.
Scrivener has a name generator, but before that I would go to sites that listed baby's names and their meanings.
However, that's just for fantasy writing (people expect weird names like Kajolnae, and stuff).
For non-fantasy writing, I tend to pick common names (Jim, Dave, etc. – except Bob; I have my reasons).
A.T. Post says
For good guys (and girls) I try to pick good strong names that sound upstanding, and usually have some significant meaning. For example, "Irene," I believe, comes from the Old Greek, which means "seeker of truth." For bad guys, I try to pick names that sound harsh or choppy or severe — Carver, Stattler, Bausch, Wrangell or some-such.
A lot of the good historical names have been taken (Joan, Hannibal, Hyperion, Zeus, and so on) so for obscure or exotic characters I try to find the obscure or exotic names from history (which I won't list in case anyone steals them). I don't try to reinvent the wheel; I just use what history's already put there.
Mark Jones says
I use a randomizer site for inspiration (Seventh Sanctum @ https://www.seventhsanctum.com/index.php). It has far more than only names, so it's a great one-stop site.
But, when it really comes down to it, I pick names that somehow ring true for me. They tend to reflect the character's personality.
Neurotic Workaholic says
I like the idea of naming characters after coffee drinks, but my favorite drink is Frappuccino; I don't think that would be the right name for a girl (or a guy).
Marie Miller says
My character are names that appeal to me. Names that portray the essence of who or what they are in the story…powerful, enigmatic, secretive, passionate and any adjectives that pop into my head to describe their appeal and attraction to the readers.
Caroline Bliss Larsen says
I just want to know how the heck Suzanne Collins comes up with Katniss Everdeen. Seriously?! I'm not nearly that creative with names…
Martina Zeitler says
I cheat and invite my readers to name the characters as part of a competition. In fact, I'm running one now… Would it be even cheekier if I were to plug it here?
I think the answer is 'yes'
Wendy Hollands says
For the main characters, I use baby name books to gain some meaningful significance. Sometimes, they're pulled from other novels where I want to invoke the memory of that character in my readers.
For all the others, any old name will do. I tend not to use unusual names as I want the character to stand out for their actions rather than their name.
I think it is important to think about social rank. A wealthy housewife might be named Elizabeth or Giselle. A waitress makes more sense as a Flo or a Maggie.
Naomi Bellina says
I use a Baby Name website. Girl names are fun to come up with in romance novels. Guys, a little harder. They have to be masculine-sounding and the good ones are so overused.
Dale Day says
Well, with historical fiction, most of the names are there from factual information. It's the minor characters that need work but a variety of online tools gives me the leads I need to be accurate.
For the pure fiction works, that's another thing altogether. I try to work out names easy to say and remember so my readers don't get confused.
For the bad guys or evil characters, I try to come up with complicated or evil names to match their character.
Liz Mallory says
I'm a synesthete and I see different colors/personalities associated with every letter (including other alphabets like Greek). I take what I know of the character and craft a name using letters that reflect their personality.
Super weird, I know!
I know this sounds cliché, but I think it's different for all writers. For example, with genre authors who are writing four or more books a year under contract we don't always take too long with character names. It would be too tiresome. I generally go to a name web site and choose one I think will work…and one I haven't used in the past. With that said, it's not uncommon for me to go back and change a character's name at the last moment during final copy edits. It's all about the story, not the name. And sometimes a name just doesn't work in the end, which is why it's nice to have "find" and "replace."
If you work at a multinational corporation, honestly another great source of inspired names is simply the company address book! The sheer diversity of the names I have encountered there – you'd think they were made up by a writer! 😉
I look in mythology for names oftentimes, and I especially love using Latin for my character's last names! The combination of Latin and mythology can sometimes turn out some pretty bizarre combinations though…
The Fast Fingers says
I also ask the same questions, that's why I'm thankful that I landed on this page. This post is really helpful as well as the comments. I enjoyed reading all the comments, gave me so much ideas.
For my current novel, I am obsessed with two things–a certain actor and Ed Sheeran's music. I have to listen to three of his songs over and over again. No matter if I'm writing, driving in the car, or taking a shower his music is on. The heart of the story is from what I feel from the music. Everyone around me has gone mad, but my novel, once polished up will tell a love story like no other—or so I think. But I'm biased.
Puneet Agrawal says
This only applies to characters which are based on or inspired by real people. Sometimes anagraming there full name can produce nice ones. But this can be really tiresome and almost never works when a person has too many vowels in his/her name. In that case, I usually use their initials. Since, i have decided on beginning letter of my character's name, it becomes a little easy. And also, keep the person (the inspiration for the character)wondering, whether it is based on them.
Jim Snell says
I think it was screenwriter Graham Yost who said all his bad guys were named after Dallas Cowboy football players.