How to choose names for fictional characters

If you’re anything like me, coming up with suitable names for your characters is a huge struggle. In this article I will describe a number of approaches to choosing character names.

What should we be aware of then when choosing a character name?

Things to be aware of

Gender – First names are usually gender-linked in that they tend to be given to either boys or girls. 

Country or ethnicity – Different nations or other communities will usually have different first and last names that tend to be given. For example, in France in 2015, the most popular first name given to baby boys was Gabriel.

Historical time period – If you’re writing historical fiction you’ll need to research suitable names for that period. Even in modern times there are different names for someone born in 1985 and 2005.

Who chooses the name – Most of the time, first names are chosen by the parents and last names are a historical thing you’re stuck with. If your character has chosen their own name, consider what they would choose.

I find Google very useful when looking for character names. I often have characters of African descent so I’d Google for example ‘Nigerian girls names’.

Use names to mean something

Is a name just a word, or is there more to it? Some underlying significance perhaps?

Some names have particular meanings. For example the Somali girl’s name Barwaaqo means ‘prosperous’. You may wish to consider this when choosing your characters’ names.

Writers can also use names to suggest to the reader what the character’s personality and/or appearance are like. This was very popular pre- 20th century. For example:

Jane Eyre – This is a plain name used to suggest a plain character.

Mr Chirrup – A Charles Dickens creation. He is described in the text as having “the smartness and something of the quick manner of a small bird”.

The Charles Dickens method of very overtly suggesting a character’s traits in this manner has fallen out of fashion. (The exception to this is in comedic writing or children’s fiction, where it can be very effective.) But a more subtle approach (like Jane Eyre) is still very common. 

So you might have a sassy female character, for whom you’re looking for a sassy name. Or a plain-talking character for whom you feel a plain name is appropriate. You only know you’ve got the right name when it feels right.

Even if you don’t do it intentionally, be aware that readers will form impressions about your character just from their name, and this will often be on a subconscious level.

Also – remember that a person can be very influenced by their name. They may have been bullied at school because of their name. Or they may feel they had to live up to a wild name given by hippie parents.

Considerations for science fiction and fantasy

Resist the temptation to make your characters’ names too otherworldly. Readers will quickly lose interest in your story if they can’t easily read and pronounce the names.

One key way in which writers offend in this manner is when they liberally sprinkle the names with apostrophes or other punctuation marks. Resist this desire – readers will get annoyed very quickly if you overdo it.

I understand if you want to use names to indicate race or community. Just remember less is more.

There are a couple of websites I like when looking for SFF names. They have random name generators – I often don’t use the exact name generated but it kicks off ideas in my head. They are:

Tips and Further help

Choosing individual names is difficult but you also need to give thought to all the names in your story and how they mesh together. Don’t have too many characters with names starting with the same letter. It will confuse readers. In fact I’d say that your main characters should all start with different letters and sound different e.g. don’t choose Susan, Lucas and Mulan.

In order to keep track of what names you have assigned, use an alphabet chart and write each name in the box of its respective letter.

What comes first – the character or their name? Sometimes you may start with a great name and then need to flesh them out. Or you may create a great character and then need to find a name. However you do it, take a look at my post on Creating Characters 

Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.

How to choose character names

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