Naming Characters

Colorful portrait

You know you’ve found the right name for a character when you speak that name aloud and the character shouts: ‘Hey! That’s me!’

In The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the protagonists are a man and his boy, both unnamed. In this case, the lack of names makes the characters and the message they convey more powerful, and it goes well with the setting of the story, a postapocalyptic world affected by an unknown cataclysm.

But most main characters do need names.

Harry Potter, probably the most popular character in contemporary literature, carries a rather dull name doesn’t he? But I think it’s the commonness and the simplicity of the name that made it so popular. And today it means so much… I think Harry Potter is a good proof that the character makes the name, and not the name the character.

I don’t like names like John Smith or Jonathan Brown that you find in books where the protagonist is a writer. I understand this helps the average reader get more easily into the skin of the character but still… There should be a little magic in a character’s name. I don’t like the overdone names you sometimes find in fantasy literature either. Tolkien used great names though… Frodo, Bilbo, and especially Gandalf.

Names in My Story

The main characters in my first novel are named thus:

  • Oliver Colors (a moonbeamed painter)
  • Lady Katherine Frost (an icy arts patron)

I’ve had the names before I began writing the story. I found them inside me and when I spoke them aloud the characters answered to them. The first names are common, the surnames revelatory. I like that his name begins with a vowel, and hers with a consonant.

For a long time I thought about not giving names to secondary characters, and refer to them only as…

  • the dignified old steward
  • the girl with carroty hair
  • the bear-like man

But this turned out to be a little clumsy, and besides, I grew fond of these characters. So I found names for them:

  • Margaret
  • Effie
  • Urs

Finding Names

Good sources for first names are The Oxford Dictionary of First Names and baby name websites. And here’s a practical guide on naming characters.

But the names of the main characters should come naturally, from within, because that ensures they have roots inside you, which I think is crucial to creating believable characters.

In the end, it’s the personality of the character that imbues the name with magic. Just think of Harry Potter… It’s the dullest name in the world, and yet, it’s so charming!

How do you choose names for your characters?

40 thoughts on “Naming Characters

  1. Names CAN and DO sound right or not. Shoot I have Saucy and Harry and Pesto and Indigo and he and she and them and a helluva lot more. They’re alive no doubt. 🙂

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly about the importance of the name we attach to a character. As an avid reader of John Irving novels I think his work shows a fine example of how important this is. With my own work I sometimes struggle to find a fitting name for a character and at other times a name just jumps into my head and I know it is right. This has happened a few time in the course of the novel I am writing. I remember when the name of Dr. Solomon Plant came out of nowhere and suddenly I could see him with so much more clarity – what he looked like, what his voice would sound like, what kind of person he was etc. and it all came from knowing his name. He fitted the name and the name fitted him. Now ‘Vincent Mars’ is a name with a great deal of possibility attached to it ….

  3. I totally know that feeling when you name the character and suddenly they pop up and shake your hand. It’s a crazy thing.

    In my first book I did the non-name for a couple of characters because it fit with the WWII spy setting…The Man in the Suit (Gestapo agent) and The Man in the Yellow Tie (a contact for a drop). Love Oliver Colors by the way!

    Anywho, cheers to names and non-name’s!

  4. I tend to use names that are realish names, but not common names, sorta like Stephen King does – i.e., in The Stand – Stu, Harold, Frannie. It gives them more personality. Then I have a few characters that are always called by a nickname. One character’s name is “Hot Dave”

  5. Charles Dickens was great with character names – a master. One of my favourites is Bradley Headstone from “Our Mutual Friend” . I think I should have been called Bradley Headstone. But I agree with you that some names can be overdone. A little too “created” . See any American soap opera of your choice. 🙂

    1. I agree about Charles Dickens… Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Sydney Carton… Great names.

      As to American soap operas, I cannot say anything about them because I don’t have a TV. 🙂

  6. My characters always start out as he and she. Over editing and revising is when I come up with names. Sometimes my stories are about specific people in my life. So I may use their first initial to name them. A story I’ve yet to post has the name Violet, but the name of the person I wrote it for is named Vickie. Sometimes character names are names I wish I had.

      1. My stories often only have two characters. If there are more then of course they get names right away. Don’t know where they come from. The words just swirl around my head and I pull them gingerly out of the air when I need them….

  7. I take a good half-year to think and fully flower a character. I have a book of names that I enjoy and I hear from other people. Sometimes when I meet a new person I get their name wrong – that name goes into the book! It’s with me at all times, just in case. Right now i’m working on Cherise Brunne and Emil Marceaux.
    I get excited just typing out their names….
    so, I always keep a book with me and write down names I might use in the future.

      1. ah, I haven’t numbered the names yet….I guess I should do that. A lot of the names come from languages I was raised with or heard as I grew up, such as German, Farsi, or French.

  8. I’ll never know how on Earth I missed this post!

    I adore the names Tolkien used for his characters! They sound so warm, so welcoming! As if I’d known them all for years!

    I also feel I know Oliver and Katherine for long now. They already seem friends. In fact I liked Oliver Colors from the start. It has that spark of unforced magic.

    I think you’re right will too common names. Maybe it helps a bit in reading but then again… who remembers the name of the characters later on? I forget them nearly the next day! So no, too common is not good.

  9. Oh my, sorry for all the mistakes… I was writing faster than my thoughts & didn’t give the time to make a quick spell check. And that’s not proper behavior in such blog…

    Cheers to Oliver Colors!

  10. One of my supporting characters is named after a lock manufacturer– There is a company called Corwin-Russwin, and I just changed the first name to Corbett (but his friends call him Cobb).

    My romantic lead is named Godiva, because it’s a name she chose for herself, and I liked the associations both with Lady Godiva and the chocolate manufacturer.

    James is called James because that’s my middle name, and I made up a last name that was hard to spell, pronounce, and remember (Ozryck) because I wanted people to think of him as just “James”.

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