As any reader or author could tell you, a character’s name can be very important. Maybe that’s why in my personal experience, naming a character is one of the most stress-inducing and difficult parts of writing fiction.
Sometimes a character’s name is easy. I’ve had some character who come to me fully formed, name included. I just know somehow who they are supposed to be, and THIS is the name that goes with them. THIS is the name they need to have.
However, that’s not a common occurrence. It’s lucky that we don’t necessarily have to wait to name a character before starting to write, if we don’t want to. (I love “search and replace” functions in word processors. Just use a filler name, a word that won’t appear elsewhere in your writing, and then, when the name comes to you, use “search and replace.” You’re set.)
I’m glad there are many places we can turn when we’re struggling to name a character. Here are a few suggestions on how to come up with a name if you’re struggling.
- Yearbooks and Other Lists of People. I turned to an old yearbook when I was writing my first, horrible novel. I needed a name for a pivotal character I decided to edit in, but had nothing. After looking through my yearbook from Senior year, I found a girl named “Danielle” and I thought, Danielle works. I knew immediately my character would go by “Dani.” A male-sounding version made sense to me. She was a very feminine character with incredible inner strength, and I thought “Dani” indicated that toughness to some degree. But you can find lists of names anywhere. I’m sure baby-naming books are common resources for authors.
- Foreign Languages. You can use standard names from other languages, or you can do something really cool like J.K. Rowling…. “Voldemort” comes from the French “vol de mort,” literally “flight from death.” The name says so much about the character! An interesting contrast with “Albus” Dumbledore. “Albus” means “white” in Latin. If you have a name whose meaning you like in English but not the sound or rhythm, look up its equivalent in other languages. Maybe you need “Jacques” instead of “Jack” or “Raquel” instead of “Rachel.” “Sylvie” is beautiful and has a softer sound than “Sylvia.”
- Symbolize Something About the Character. Voldemort is an example of this, of course. But there are other ways to choose a name that is symbolic. How many Christ figures in literature have the initials J.C.? There are more than a few. Joe Christmas from Faulkner’s “A Light in August” is the one that jumps immediately to my mind. Of course, colors are symbolic. (Think of “Albus” above. These methods I’m describing are in no way mutually exclusive.) Months of the year can be names and are also symbolic.
- Name Your Character After A Historic, Literary, Mythological, or Legendary Figure. This is one way to choose a symbolic name and usually implies a connection between the attributes or the work/purpose of the two people who share a name. Shakespearean names could work well. And whatever your thoughts on spirituality and religion, I could suggest some research into Catholic saints for naming purposes. There are lots of fascinating figures there, many well known, whose names could add symbolic oomph to your character’s presence. An example: in the same novel that includes Dani, I have a princess character who is intuitive and smart, but people tend to dismiss her insights. Throughout the book she has a dislike for and distrust of the villain, who is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” type. I named her “Cassandra” after Cassandra from Greek mythology, who was a prophetess no one believed.
- Choose a Name that Doesn’t Fit Your Character. Depending on your tone and themes, a so-called “ironic” name could work well for your character, like an everyman with a really weird, unforgettable name or a very unique individual with a name like John Jones or James Smith or Robert Johnson. For me, the coolest thing about an ironic name is that whether or not the character accepts it (i.e., chooses to go by it rather than using a nickname or other name) says a lot about the character without the author having to lift a finger in exposition.
For me, creating surnames is a lot of fun because your options are kind of unlimited there; at least, I feel last names are more varied than first names tend to be. My advice is not to despair if you can’t find a first name that works, but craft a last name that you feel is appropriate. (The last name can be the one that carries the symbolism, if you want to involve symbolism in the naming.) In my experience, once half a name is in place the other half is easier to settle. You just find something with a rhythm that you like.