Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Character Names - How Do Writers Come Up With Them?

Authors who write fiction have to make up a lot of stuff. One of the most important aspects of writing fiction is making up names for characters. So, how do writers come up with names?

REALISTIC NAMES. So how's a writer supposed to come up with names that fit the particular needs of his world-building? The telephone book is a good source. Baby name lists are good too. A great source is a reference site that tells what the meaning of names is. For instance, a lot of names have historical or ethnic language origins. Some writers like to insert names of people they know or people in their past. For instance, a writer might name a bad guy after a school bully. Writer's have been known to solicit character name suggestions from their readers as part of a promotional contest. Oftentimes writers will craft a surname for a character that either suggests a prominent trait or behavior pattern. The trick is to be subtle enough not to make it so obvious to the reader that the character name becomes an object of ridicule.

FANTASY, SCIENCE FICTION NAMES. Science fiction and fantasy writers usually have to come up with names that are unique to their world-building. A science fiction story populated by aliens would necessarily have character names that do not sound like names the reader would recognize as everyday human names. Fantasy writers whose stories have pre-modern setting or paranormal setting with magical creatures also have to fit their character names to the world-building needs of their stories. Sometimes writers create pseudo-realistic naming rules that seem appropriate for the needs of the fantasy or science fiction or paranormal world. For instance, everyone in a tribe might have a name that begins with a consonant with an apostrophe indicating a conjunction or letters left out before the second part of the name. Many writers borrow naming conventions from ethnic groups or nationalities that would sound foreign to their target readers.

A fun and entertaining way to come up with names is to use a random formula. For instance, there was an email joke that made the rounds several years ago called 'Your Star Wars Name,' and the formula consisted of using parts of you last and first names combined with the model of your first car and the first three letters of a common mammal on a numbered list. So John Walker who drove a Vega in high school might have a Star Wars name would be Walkjo bat Vega - or something like that. You get the idea. There's a cool site for generating fake names (random, elf, super hero, etc.) at It's a lot of fun and it produces names you can actually use or improve on for your characters specialized names.

One caveat - don't get too creative, to the point that your names are so off in left field that they cannot be pronounced or easily recognized as names. For example, the alien name Xvphonithphathprex, besides being a challenge to pronounce, would be difficult to distinguish from another alien name Evapthelpodnokpo. Yes, they start with different letters, and contain different letters of the alphabet in orders that are different enough to be recognized as different, you're going to have to type those names thousands of times throughout your manuscript, and you're probably going to want to create shortened nicknames. Good luck on that. The point is, you want to give your alien or elfish names a little bit of exotic difference, but not so much that the end result is unrecognizable as a name.

FOREIGN, AND HISTORICAL PERIOD NAMES.  Historically accurate novels set in a specific time period or historical setting need to make their character names fit the expected name conventions of the time period and location. This requires some diligent historical research to make sure you don't use a common Irish name for your Saxon heroine. You should also do research to make sure the titles you give noblemen match national conventions for the time period. You should get a bit creative in naming foreign characters so that you don't use the first common name you think of (Pierre for a Frenchman, for instance). Also the spelling should match the national conventions.

HOW A NAME SOUNDS. It's important to give your characters appropriate sounding names. If you have a very heroic male character who's macho and kick-butt, you probably be better off naming him Rorke rather than Tim unless you plan on using the contradiction of an ordinary sounding name as part of the plot line. A female character who's supposed to be alluring and mysterious spy would do better with a name like Tanya than Betty.

The sound of names subconsciously conjures up ideas of what the person is like. Names should be age appropriate for the character. For instance, you would probably not want to name your teen sleuth Hattie Lidstone because, truthfully, that sounds like a name belonging to a woman from a past generation. If you deliberately go against common expectations, you should have a good story reason for it. To make sure your character bears a name that's common for the age of the character, you can easily check name lists that show statistics for the most popular names of given eras. For instance, Moon and Star might be good names for hippies in the sixties, but you'd have some explaining to do if your modern-day teen characters had names like this. Of course you can use this to your advantage if you want to include the fact that your teen character is being raised by her hippie grandmother.

'Power' names usually have 'hard' sounding consonants in them, like 'k'. Softer names with 's' and 'l' and 'a' can be used to suggest introverted or downtrodden characters.

So, no matter how you come up with character names, choose wisely and let them do their work to help establish characterization. In the long run it will make your writing easier and stronger.

Dana Warryck, Penumbra Publishing author and guest blogger


  1. Great article. I steal names. Mind if I use Xvphonithathprox and Evapthelpodnokpo? They could be twin sisters.

  2. Guess you could nickname these characters Prox and Nokpo. I don't think I want to know what these twins will be doing in your story...



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