Last Updated on September 26, 2022 by Ben Oakley
Naming your characters can be difficult but it doesn’t have to be mind-numbing! Here are 25 tips on how to choose your character name.
Some writers can choose a character name in the blink of an eye, and it fits their story perfectly, but others struggle to develop even a first name.
It could be as easy or as difficult as browsing name lists on the internet, but it won’t work for everyone.
There are some rules you should follow such as making sure your character name fits in with the time period, setting, ethnicity, and style of story.
Beyond that, choosing a character name really is an open market. However, readers have an expectation, so make sure to keep it relevant to the genre you’re writing in.
Here are 25 tips on how to choose a character name.
1. Choose a name that befits your genre.
There are certain expectations that readers have when they pick up a book. Fantasy novels tend to have names that are not common.
The likes of Bob, Jane, or Ted do NOT fit a fantasy novel.
But Legolas, Khazra, or Strelthas, do!
On the flipside, naming your character Legolas in a romance won’t necessarily work, unless the parent of the character has a Lord of the Rings fetish!
2. Create a flow with both forename and surname.
It’s always beneficial to a reader if a name rolls off the tongue with ease. Do your best to make sure the entire name, from first to last, has a nice flow to it.
Cadence Kickerstaff the Third is a bit of a mouthful but Cadence Jacobs could work better.
If you have to mention a middle name or a line of heritage, then mention it once and keep the name shorter going forward.
3. Have a good reason for an unusual name.
You may wish to go a little crazy and name your character Little Miss Snake Fist on a Buddhist Dragon, and that’s fine in concept but you better have a good reason for it.
Having a solid reason for a name is one way to get an unusual character name in your book.
Of course, after providing the full name to readers, it might be better to shorten it. Such as Little Miss Dragon, or simply Snake Fist.
4. Scroll through movie credits for ideas.
Get your DVD collection out and skip through the credits. There are some goldmine names on the end credits for films.
Or head over to IMDB and scroll through cast and crew lists of your favourite film.
While writing this list, I clicked on the first film on the IMDB page which was Insidious 3. From the make-up and art departments, I found the following gems:
- Liz Mendoza.
- Robert Ramos.
- Charlie Montoya.
You can mix and match surnames until you find the right one for you.
5. Check your bookshelf for inspiration.
Whether you store books on kindle or have a bona-fide library in your home, take a peek at the author names to see if a part of the name can work for you.
It in no way means to copy author names or their characters but you can take inspiration from them.
In the second Harrison Lake novel, The Limehouse Hotel, the surnames of the main characters, are named after famous crime writers.
6. Look at the deeper meaning in a name.
The Matrix is a good film analogy where every character’s name means something for the overall story.
This will be a little harder if you are intent on writing a series but within a standalone novel, having character names that mean something more, can help polish off the overall product.
Nearly all names have a meaning, but you don’t have to explain it in your story. How many times have you met someone who told you their name AND the meaning behind it?
However, having a hidden meaning, or a meaning that someone might search, can add extra gravitas to your tale.
7. Previous classmates or teachers.
Even if you didn’t like your school years, I bet you remember some of the names of other pupils in your class or year.
It can be another goldmine of character names. Hey, maybe you were bullied at school by an Albert Block. Wouldn’t be a great little secret of yours to make Albert a character in your book and then kill him off!
That’s what we call novel karma! Most of us don’t remember our teacher’s first names but we may recollect how we addressed them.
Mrs. Cummings or Mr. Penfold have a nice little ring to it.
8. Remember that your character’s parents named them.
Your novel might be set in 2025 but if your character is 55 years old then they were named in 1970.
Sure, stories can be leant a certain amount of leeway but if you’re going for complete realism then you might have to remember the year in which your character was born.
That 2025 character might well be named Judy, Gerald, Tammy, or Dawn.
9. Avoid using the name of a celebrity or well-known person.
Seems obvious but it’s not always. A character in a recent book I read was named Dan Stevens which I thought was a fantastic name, until I was told he was a well-known British actor.
It didn’t bother me as there are many thousands of people with the same name, but it may irk some people.
You might run into trouble if you use the same character name that another author has used.
There can only be one Detective Poirot, Taggart, or Alex Cross.
Run a quick search on Amazon or B&N to see if a name is already in use.
Most authors and publishers include the main character’s name in the description of the book, so your search will show it up.
10. Make sure your character name fits their ethnicity.
More of a rule but a tip, nonetheless. It’s easy to forget that your character might come from a specific racial background but it’s important to acknowledge it, to ensure it fits.
Fred from Indonesia might seem like a fun idea but eventually, it’s not really going to work out.
It also wouldn’t seem right to give your British character the Vietnamese name of Nguyen Chanh Truc, then claim his ancestry goes back to 14th Century Oxford.
11. Avoid similar character names.
There IS an exception to this! Your story could be more light-hearted or focused on an oddball family.
In that instance, giving them names beginning with the same letter might work. However, generally, it’s frowned upon to use similar sounding names.
Why? It can confuse the reader, despite how clever you thought it was.
The character developments of Tom, Dom, Fromm, Bronwyn, and Bonnie might be a little too hard to follow through a 300+ page novel.
12. Use repetition of identical sounds or alliteration.
This is a well-used method among many authors.
Alliterations include the likes of:
- Bilbo Baggins.
- Bruce Banner.
- John Jameson.
- Lana Lang.
- Wade Wilson.
- Stephen Strange.
Sure, some of those have come from superhero movies and comics but I bet you remember them!
Identical sounding names could be:
- John Bonn.
- Jack Mack.
- Hairy Mary.
- Anne Dan.
- Fraser Taser!
13. Speak your character name over and over again.
Even if you’ve spent hours or days choosing a perfect name, it might not work until you say it out loud.
Don’t simply keep it in your head, literally say it out loud. If you have a microphone, record your voice saying it and see if it works, rolls off the tongue, and makes sense.
Harrison Frake didn’t work quite as well as Harrison Lake.
14. Keep the name short and sweet.
Even when writing epic fantasy novels, you need to be able to keep a character’s name short enough to fit in to multiple action and dialogue scenes.
Even J.R.R Tolkien or David Gemmell knew to keep the names short.
It’s one thing to give your character a ten-word name in an introduction but it’s another to keep using that multi-word combination.
Druss the Legend from Gemmell’s works doesn’t remain as Druss the Legend throughout the entire book. It is simply shortened to Druss.
15. Fit your character names with the theme of the book.
Do you have a specific theme you would like to relate to readers? Then theming your character names might be a good idea.
For example, in the Hunger Games books, Katniss and Primrose are named after flowers.
If your story has a strong Winter theme running through it, then you might consider:
16. Use seasons and months as guides.
Even if your book is not set in one specific timeframe, you could still use seasons and months as a guide to naming your characters.
Many characters have been named after months, May, January, and June, being the most common.
With the right combination of names, either identical-sounding or alliterate, you could come up with something outstanding.
17. Keep the same character name all the way through.
It’s fine to change your character name but try not to change them halfway through your story.
You might be changing Harry to Harold because it sounds more official but remember to change every Harry otherwise you might end up confusing some readers.
It would be a bit more off-putting if you changed Harry to Frederick and missed out a few Harry’s in the edit!
The same applies to minor characters. It’s best to make a list of character names so that you remember how they are addressed throughout the length of the book.
18. Choose a character name that befits their personality.
You can make a character name fit anyone from any walk of life, but you always have to remember that readers have certain expectations, and they need to be met.
You probably wouldn’t find a Stuart Hazeltine living in the Australian outback, but you might expect to find a Noah Jones or an Olivia Grace.
You also probably wouldn’t find a Billy Jack Jones living in a penthouse apartment in Central London unless you had a very particular reason for him to be there.
You’d most likely find him in America’s Southern States.
19. Use a placeholder if you can’t decide on a name.
Don’t let a lingering decision on a character name stop you from writing.
If you can’t quite come up with a character name that works, then use a placeholder or numbers in place of it.
You might well find that while writing, you realise what the character should be called and thus you find the perfect one.
You don’t need to have all the character names to begin writing a story.
20. Use social media to help with names.
Everyone and their grandmothers are on social media, so you’ll find hundreds of millions of names on there.
You could search a hashtag or trending news story to see who is commenting. Once you find a first name you like then search further for a surname that matches it.
I wouldn’t recommend to use a person’s full name but interchanging first and last names can provide some wonderful combinations.
For this article I had a quick peek on social media and came up with Jennifer Scott and Hadley Madsen.
21. Make a name list on a text file for future use.
In everyday life, online and offline, you’re bound to come across some names you really like the sound of.
You might already be writing your novel and have your character’s names laid out but you will need more names for the next book.
It can be a good idea to make a note of particularly good sounding names that you come across throughout the day.
You never know, they may come in handy at some point!
22. Mix up the names of people you know.
It’s probably not the best idea to use family or friends full name but an element of their name combined with another may well work!
For instance, my grandfather’s middle was Jacobsen, which I thought made a fantastic surname for a minor character.
For inspiration, you could look at:
- Online acquaintances.
23. Look through sports pages and websites for ideas.
Say you are looking for the perfect Brazilian name for a character, but you have no idea where to start.
You can use any sports in any country in the world to really narrow down the character name you want to use.
24. Run a contest to use someone’s real name.
This works better for minor characters. If you have a patreon account, then you can include the naming of a character in certain levels of membership.
You can also run contests on social media with the winner having their name as a minor character in your current or future novel.
It works well for naming a character but also for promotion and marketing.
25. Use name generators!
I’ve always seen this as a last resort as I believe it’s better to come up with a character name off your own back.
However, if you are still struggling to find the right character name then you can use a random name generator.
Good luck in the naming of your character!