Let’s face it, naming characters is hard.
These are the characters we will team up with for the next 300 or 400 pages. These are the characters that hopefully literary agents, publishers and readers will fall madly in love with.
Why Character Names Are Important
- Character names personalize the people in your story
- Character names connect readers to the story
- Character names help readers remember the story (and the author)
- Character names can become a brand bigger than the story
17 Character Naming Secrets Of Bestselling Authors
1. Be Clever
Authors get extra credit for cleverness in naming their characters. Want to call your dentist Dr. Payne, go for it. Besides, Ebenezer Scrooge more than hints at the “character” of the character.
Key Takeaway: Connect the name to a major character trait, emotional conflict or profession.
2. Don’t be Too Clever
Cleverness easily slides into cheesiness which is a small stumble away from absurd. Beware of naming your cowboy romantic lead Love Wrangling or your killer Glove Nofitz. Of course, if you are writing comedy or some other exception to this *rule*, be as clever as you want for effect. Ebenezer Scrooge is arguably “too clever” but Scrooge you for pointing it out.
Key Takeaway: Only name characters *exactly* after their character trait or role in the story if it aligns with your genre and story purpose.
3. Consider the Connotation
Victor Frankenstein sounds evil. Ditto for Hannibal Lecter. The *sound* and association both matter when naming characters. Generally, bad guys (and girls) have names that sound bad. Not always, particularly in mysteries where the story is about unveiling the killer among many possibilities. In that case, Hannibal Lecter probably gives it away.
Key Takeaway: Choose character names that *sound* good or bad.
4. Flip Connotation
The opposite advice as #3 above. Great fiction is nothing without great contrast. Naming a good character a *bad sounding* name might make them more memorable.
Key Takeaway: Contrast characters with thier names.
5. Research the Root
Roots matter in life and character naming. Subtext and subtlety win over obvious, in-your-face names. Mal works for an antagonist better than Evil McNemesis.
Key Takeaway: Hint at character through the root of the name.
6. Name Shame
Not everyone loves their given name. I imagine some people eventually track down and smack their parents for naming then after popular shoe brands that are no longer popular, famous underwear lines or fast food hotspots. Which brings up an important point in character naming: how does the character feel about their own name? Their partner’s name? Their child’s name? This is all great fodder for characterization in fiction.
Key Takeaway: Consider how a character feels about their name and how that plays into your story.
7. Uncommon Names
Scout. Boo Radley. Atticus Finch. Svengali. Bucky Wunderlick. Jeeves. Ichabod Crane. Willy Wonka. You could add a whole dictionary for fantasy and science fiction genes. Harry Potter novels, too (except, ironically Harry Potter himself – which we will get to post haste below). And, just in case you wonder why I’m leaving out all the recent popular character names – Bella Swan, Liseel Meminger (Book Thief), Katniss Everdeen.
Key Takeaway: Consider an unusual or uncommon name that *sticks* in a reader’s mind long after the story ends.
8. Go Common
Ah, who doesn’t like conflicted advice? I do. I do. Ok, mostly I don’t. But I really couldn’t get away with not mentioning the many common character names – mega popular names I might add – that exist in the fictional world. Why go common? Well, because it’s common! Common names are more easy to pronounce, relate to (heck, they might be our names or likely someone we know) and sound more realistic. Harry Potter is a prime example. So is John Coffey, Randall Flagg, John Carter, Sam Spade, Bruce Wayne, Dilbert and Jack Reacher. The list goes on and on.
Key Takeaway: Give your character a common name to make them more relatable.
9. Read Names Out Loud
Before settling on your character name, say it out loud. Several times. Record it for playback. Does it work? Is it grating or confusing? Lyrical or pompous? What is overlooked on the page is often obvious to the ear. Sam Spade, Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter all sound awesome on purpose.
Key Takeaway: Say the name out loud.
10. Go Short
Most character names that last the test of time are short, not long. 6 (or less) letters for the first name is common. Short names like short words are stronger, and easier to understand, read and remember.
Key Takeaway: Choose a short name.
11. Two + One Syllable Naming
After you stare long enough at lists of famous or popular character names, you begin to go blind with a side of migraine. You also notice patterns. Have you picked up on any from the few mentions in this list? One pattern is the use of few syllables in many (but certainly not all) character names. The pattern is not always identical – there are variations – but the pattern or patterns exist nonetheless. There are, of course, exceptions, but here is a shortlist of common variations on the syllable pattern:
One + One = James Bond, Sam Spade, Bruce Wayne, Nero Wolfe, John Galt, Jane Eyre
Two + One = Moby Dick, Lincoln Rhyme, Spencer Reid, Randall Flagg, Sherlock Holmes
One + Two = John Coffey, Jack Reacher, John Carter, Boo Radley, Jay Gatsby
Three + One = Ebenezer Scrooge, Ichabod Crane, Atticus Finch, Dorian Gray, Huckleberry Finn
Key Takeaway: Name your characters using few syllables.
12. Avoid Complicated Names
While unusual names might be memorable, hard to pronounce names – like Hzzxible Blagtersnoutluggagus – is just annoying. Unless there is a very good story reason to give a character a crazy name, stick with something us mere mortals can pronounce. Of course, if you do give your character a long string of syllables, they probably have a nickname most people call them, so there’s that.
Key Takeaway: Avoid complicated names.
13. Shy Away From Names That End in S
Think about it. Think about writing the possessive form of the name. Make it easy on the reader by avoiding names that end in S. Can you use them? Of course! Just something to consider when brainstorming names.
Key Takeaway: Don’t use names that end in S.
14. Vivid Differences
Most stories involve more than one person. Many have 3 or more. Seperate them by name so they stand out and so readers don’t get confused. The easiest way to do this is to give everyone a different looking and different sounding name. Janus and Frank instead of Jake and Blake. Choose unique first letters and sounds. Avoid names that rythm.
Key Takeaway: Give each character a totally unique name.
15. Give Your Character a Nickname
Sometimes the best names are nicknames. No matter what you name your characters, people in their lives probably change it. Jeremy becomes “J”, Clarisse becomes Clare or Clare-Bear, Cathy becomes Cat. This is not only more realistic, it also gives you chance to show relationships between characters. A person who calls your protagonist Ms. Bates is different than one who calls here “Mom” or “Veronica” or even “V-Babe”.
Key Takeaway: Give your character a nickname.
16. Time Traveler Names
Names that are out of era or period are called Time Travelers. If a Google, Hashtag or Starbucks shows up in 1792, Houston you have a problem.
Key Takeaway: Get the period right. Period.
17. You Don’t Know Jack (or John)
If you are following patterns, you might as well follow this one. Can’t think of a good name, go with John or Jack. After all, these two common names have a long history in popular fiction.
Jack of all trades: Jack Reacher, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and Jill, Jack Frost, Jack Bauer, Jack Sparrow, Jack Carter, Jack Ryan, Jake Harkness, Jack Shephard
John Does: John Coffey, John Carter, John McClane, John Rambo, Jon Snow, John Connor, John Smith, John Doe, John Locke, John Anderton, John Matrix, John Smith, John Mason
Key Takeaway: Name your character Jack, John, Sam or another common name.