7 tips for naming your characters

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StanleyYelnats. Dreadful Spiller. The Artful Dodger. Lemony Snicket. Ebenezer Scrooge. Arwen Undomiel. Atreyu. Ender Wiggin. Their names are sealed in our hearts forever. So how do we find names for our own characters that have the same staying power?

Baby Name Books

Yes, people actually buy entire books to help them name the two or three children they will have. And then they give the books to used book stores where us hardcore namers can pick them up for half price. These books have lists of first names with meanings, and often etymology, associations in popular culture, and Most Popular lists. There are also several websites that do the same thing. This one, for instance. Or this one, which has popular names from a variety of countries.

Phone Books

Yes! Printed phone books still have a purpose! The residential white pages offer a plethora of options for last names. So if you don’t want all your characters named Smith or Jones or Garcia or Nguyen, pull a real phone book out of the paper recycling and stash it on your bookshelf. Any old edition will do (YellowPages.com isn’t exactly browse-able).

Translation Dictionaries

If your story takes place in a fictional world that presumably speaks a different language, pick up a couple of translation dictionaries in some languages that strike your fancy. Then find a cool sounding word, and change the letters around until it sounds right for your made-up culture. This can work for first and last names.

The Thesaurus

If you want to get a little more whimsical, play around with some synonyms. This often works best for nicknames, but there are no rules.

Bible Names

There are tons of cool names in the Bible—and not just the obvious ones like Adam, Abraham, Sarah, and David. Ishmael is a Bible name. Or there’s Nimrod, Mor’decai, and Eleazar. Start in Genesis 4-5, 10-11 for some good lists, and flip around at your leisure for more.

Choose Different Initials

Characters named Mark and Matt and Mary and Molly can confuse your readers pretty quickly. Make sure to choose names with a variety of first letters to help your readers keep characters straight. Sometimes, however, giving siblings or other family members similar names helps readers to remember how they relate to each other (like Fili and Kili and Oin and Gloin and so on).

Choose for Phonaesthetics

Phonaesthetics refers to the beauty or ugliness of words based on the way they sound, not on their meaning (for instance, beauty and pulchritude are synonyms, but the former is far more phonaesthetically pleasing than the latter). Giving an evil villain an ugly name, or your hero a noble-sounding name, or your comic relief a name that’s fun to say can make those names stick in your readers’ heads.

What are some of your favorite character names—read or written?

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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10 Comments

  1. The alliteration issue has tripped me up in more books than I can name. I don’t know what it is about names starting with the same letter, but it confuses the heck out of me! I am so glad that you pointed it out. Naming characters can be really challenging if, like me, you are a name perfectionist. ;)

    • Yes! The worst one I saw was A Swiftly Tilting Planet (one of the sequels to A Wrinkle in Time), which skips around between several generations of the same family, all of which have extremely similar names. This was on purpose, but it made it nearly impossible to tell which generation was which.

  2. I use baby name books for most of my characters (if they’re named at all) and try and hunt down names with appropriate meanings relevant to the character’s actions.

  3. Never really thought about it — glad to see how thoroughly you have! Fascinating post! Like the concept around choosing names for a made up culture.

  4. I am always in awe of J.K. Rowling’s skill with naming her characters. Names like Remus Lupin, which gives a clue about his character from the beginning, and Rubeus Hagrid, which rolls beautifully from the tongue. And, of course, Albus Percial Wulfric Brian Dumbledore — brilliant! ;)

  5. When I write, naming characters is the part I sometimes save until last. The first draft or outline is “the man”, “he”, “the girl from so-and-so” and then I start looking into names. I look for meanings and origins. In a recent story though, the names came so easily each time a new person entered the story. It was a nice change of pace not to over-think the names.

    • I love it when that happens!

      It’s wise of you to not name characters ’till the end, though. Often you don’t realize a name is wrong until you’re already into the third draft, which is too late to change it–you’re already attached.

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