How to Pick a Character’s Name

This is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group blog-hop, designed to help encourage authors and foster discussions about writing topics across the internet and the world. This month’s question is “What’s harder for you to come up with, book titles or character names

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For me, it’s definitely coming up with a book title. Because I’m primarily writing a series, I want the titles to all work together, to where they sound like they’re part of a “family” of books. And then, I want them to be memorable, to not be something already used by another writer (at least, not on the blockbuster level). I don’t want to be one of 5 or 10 authors who wrote a book by the same name if possible.

By comparison, coming up with names is simple. I usually start with a feel for who the character is, what sort of person they seem to be, and with that comes an idea as to the length of their name, whether they go by a nickname, and which letter their name starts with. Then it’s just a matter of hunting through names that start with that letter until I find the right one (if a name doesn’t pop into my head to begin with). Some names I’ve created on my own and some I’ve found from lists, just depending on how unusual a character is and what sort of feel I want for them.

Here are four things to think about when naming characters:

  • Are they a formal or informal person? It can be fun to give a fun-loving person a stuffy name, like Alexandrina or Archibald, but you have to keep in mind that the characters might choose to change their names or go by a nickname or even their middle name if they’re saddled with something they don’t like.
  • Has the name been used in your genre? This doesn’t mean you can’t have a Jane or Elizabeth or Mary if you’re writing romance, but if it’s unique and was used in a popular book, you might consider picking something else. For example, you might not want a Tris in a fantasy story, and you might want to avoid Bellas if your story has anything to do with vampires. Anything that makes readers think about another book while reading your book is probably not ideal.
  • Does the name work with your goals for that character?  If a name creates too strong a connotation, you might spend the whole book fighting your readers’ initial impressions. For example, if you name someone “Honey Apple” and she’s supposed to be this non-nonsense character, you might get a lot of jokes out of it…but you also might make it hard for your readers to see Honey as this tough, capable person. Your name selection might make the hurdle of believability and character “appropriateness” just a little too hard.
  • Is it pronounceable? If you want a character to be likable, you should probably pick a likable name, something that readers can pronounce in their heads as they read it. Otherwise, every time they see it, some of them will groan and try to remember if something like GIlyaxzyi is pronounced as Gly-ax-yigh or Gl-yax-yee or even Galaxy (if they don’t just see that name and run.)

On that note, consider a simplified spelling or standard spelling for characters. There’s no need to have Cassandra to be Kahsahndrah unless you’re creating a culture where the simplified spelling wouldn’t fit (and even then, you might be able to do with Kasandrah, to where one “h” creates the flavor and the rest disappear). The easier it is for readers to read and enjoy your story, the better.

Happy writing!

Copyright 2018 Andrea Lundgren

 

15 thoughts on “How to Pick a Character’s Name

  1. For my Biblical novel set in ancient Sumer, I needed names that felt authentic without overloading the reader’s comprehension every time. (No Tiglath-pileser or Ipqu-annunitum.)

    So I used Sumerian occupation names for many of my characters: the herdsman became “Udul”, the farmer, “Engar,” the merchant, “Damgar,” the weaver, “Ishbar”, etc. I even used the name of a favorite Persian recipe for the name of my villain. (Don’t ask me how that came to me — my mind is a series of random non sequiturs some times — “squirrel”.

    My challenge in the sequel I’m currently writing, is that the Genesis narrative uses several difficult names like Kedorlaomer (king of Elam) and Melchizedek (king of Salem) which I cannot change lest my readers think I’m changing the Biblical story line as well.

    I’m planning to reduce the cognitive overload by referring to each of them as “the king” or “the priest” as much as possible after using their name the first time…
    –Joel Thimell

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I thought most of your names were easy enough to work with, and I’m excited to hear you’re writing Lot Part Two! I look forward to hearing how he “really” survived the attack on Sodom by the four kings. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Personally I usually come of the with title and very basic plot before I start writing. Those two items are usually the thinking points that are sparked at the idea’s conception.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Pretty much for main characters. On occasion I have to think for a sec. For one character, I knew I wanted to have a four syllable last name, and I found the perfect one with a quick scan of the white pages. 🙂 Usually, I just go with the flow and write the names that come to me.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I generally have a title and theme from the beginning. Your points about character names are spot-on. Nothing is more irritating (and takes me out of the story) than a weird name I can’t pronounce in my head or is strange for the sake of being strange, rather for than some logical reason. Biblical names can be tough, but providing a pronunciation key really does help.

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    1. Pronunciation keys are wonderful…provided the reader knows they’re there. I find that with ebooks, I’m less likely to jump to the end to look for one because I’m concerned I’ll either run into the ending or forever lose my place. Have you run into that problem?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had to smile at the ‘is it pronounceable’ because this is one that’s so important and many forget…unless it’s a name from another culture, of course. But I stumble enough over more difficult names as it is 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know! I think it’s one thing to stumble over something from a different culture and another to deal with something that just doesn’t read smoothly. At least, if it’s a real name from a different culture, we can look up the pronunciation or at least muddle our way through the transliteration.

      It’s kind of like dealing with an accent in dialogue…keep the flavor but don’t try to reproduce it perfectly, or readers will struggle to make sense of what they’re reading. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I really struggle with titles (as you well know). I still haven’t settled on a title for the new book, even though it is just about ready to be formatted for publication. Guess I’d better get on that, huh?

    Character names are much more fun to come up with. If I don’t have an idea in my head, I sometimes refer to databases with older names–Anglo Saxon, Celtic, Norse, etc. I look at names that have meanings which correspond in some way to the character I’m creating, then find one with the right feel, look, and sound. I’m not opposed to playing with the spellings a little. I try not to pick names that sound too much like the names of other characters in the book, or have too many character names that start with the same letter. The more characters I have over time, the harder this gets!

    Liked by 1 person

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