Jane and John Smith: Top 5 Tips on Naming Characters

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I just named some characters, Jane and John Smith. What does that say about these characters? Do you think boring? No, no, think alias. Think clueless that such an alias might be too transparently an alias. What would make them so clueless? Ah, you’re getting interested in my characters just from their names? One hopes so!

What connotations do your characters’ names have? Abraham, might be Biblical or it might be Presidential. Either way, it evokes a certain set of expectations about your character that you can play against or reinforce, as needed.

In some ways, it’s just the normal exactness that you need with any of your language. But this is a very important tag for your character. When you name your character, think about these things:

Top 5 Tips on Naming Your Characters

  1. Meaning of the name. Buy a good baby name book or something like The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. What does the name mean and how does that relate to the character qualities you want to show-don’t-tell? You can use it to reinforce or contrast. For example, my name means Dark Fortress, while my husband’s name means Blond Warrior. Kinda nice combination, don’t you think, a love story meant to endure!

  2. Origin of name. Does the name come from a certain language, time period, or ethnic group? How does the origin affect the connotations for the name?
  3. Think of possible nicknames for this name. What complexities can you bring to the character just by using an apt nickname? Will the nickname contrast or reinforce the real name? For example, Rebecca could be called Bec, or she could be called something totally unrelated like Wisdom.
  4. Say the name out loud. Is it easy or hard to pronounce? Does it “trip off the tongue lightly”? Or, does it tie the tongue in knots? What would each of these options say about your character? Will the reader be put off by a hard-to-pronounce name? Or is it an expected part of your genre, like fantasy or science-fiction?
  5. Try out several names. Write a sample chapter using the name, but use the Find and Replace on your word processor to change out the name for an alternate. Reread the chapter. Which name seems apt? Repeat until one feels right on all levels!

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2 Comments
  • Marybeth Whalen
    December 1, 2011

    I also recommend scanning magazine mastheads and watching Facebook names of your friends’ friends. I’ve found some great names that way! I keep a running list that I can refer to whenever I’m dreaming up a new character. Makes it easy!

  • Darcy Pattison
    December 1, 2011

    Great idea! Often, I’ll just look at authors of the books on my shelves and mix and match first name/last name. Still, I really like to know the meaning of the name.
    Darcy