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Three Ways to Name Characters

Updated on March 8, 2016

Quick! Think of your top three favourite characters.

Go on. I can wait.
Go on. I can wait. | Source

I'm betting that, whoever your favourite characters are, they have names. Maybe you like a character because of their name, or maybe their name is incidental. I don't know who you chose. What I do know is that you were able to identify your favourite character because of their name. You could probably do the same thing for characters you hate. From Emma to Eragon, names are important to defining who character are.

That's why it's important that most major characters have some sort of name. It could be a standard name, a nickname, a monomer, or a name the character made up for themselves. Of course, characters don't always need names. Laird's Sister in Alice Munro's short story Boys and Girls does not have a name, and she's the protagonist. Invisible Man also has a nameless protagonist. Their namelessness is not accidental. Their namelessness reflected themes in the works. You'll probably need a name for your character, so here are three great ways to give your character a name.

Name that Classical Character!

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Option One: Use Meaningful Names

The meaning of names is a difficult matter if your name isn't something like Heather or James. The name Molly has at least six different meanings depending on who you ask. It could be a variant of Mary, it could mean "star of the sea", or it could mean "18th century effeminite male". Names like James have a more clear-cut meaning - James means "supplanter". The name Heather comes from a plant. Remember Laird from Boys and Girls? His name means "Lord".

Meaningful names have been used by authors such as Terry Pratchett and Jim Butcher, among others. Pratchett uses this frequently in his Discworld series. Philosopher Ibid is named for citations. Butcher's titular character from The Dresden Files was named for a city that was wracked by explosions in World War Two.

It's important to note that using a name with a meaning doesn't excuse you from creating an interesting character. You don't get to make a wife with a one-note personality just because she is named Serena Joy. At the same time, calling an extremely vain, powerful military dictator Tauno is a bit strange, unless it's a joke. Tauno means "peaceful and modest" in Finnish.

I have used meaningful names many times, as they can provide a nifty little detail in a story. One example is Marcus Wood, a young WWII veteran living in post-war Britain. His name comes from Mars, the Roman god of war and one of Rome's protectors. This name fits his role.

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Option 2: Use the Way the Name Sounds

The English language is made up of over forty phonemes. These phonemes are sounds produced by the human voice in combinations to make words. You didn't click on this Hub to learn about science, so I'll jump straight to the point. Sometimes there are names that bring up certain concepts because of the way they sound.

J. K. Rowling has used this hundreds of times. For example, she named Harry Potter's dull family the Dursleys. Dursley is a town in England, but that's not the origin of the family's name. Rowling grew up near the the town, and thought the name sounded boring. She's remarked to the BBC, "I also get a lot of names from maps. I don't imagine I'm very popular in Dursley." Steven King used this when naming the characters in his novel It. One of them is Michael Hanlon, known to most as "Mike". He's the one that calls his friends together.

Phonemes can be finicky, though. Sometimes sounds can be lost in the world of accents. Canadians know a thing or two aboot that. Other times, names can run into language-based problems. The most obvious one is a situation where something that sounds okay in one language sounds embarrassing in another language. You might want to name a character "Bender", but in British and Australian slang, that term is rather giggle-worthy.

Marcus Wood has two phonemic relationships. Marcus sounds like "mark us", while his full name sounds like "Marcus would". Both of those relatives reflect parts of Marcus's character. He does do unusual things, and those things mark him.

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Option 3: Select Randomly

If searching through baby name books or listening to thousands of names seems too long, there is a third method you can choose to get your characters a name. It is faster and simpler. Select the names randomly.

There aren't many authors I know that will admit to using randomly chosen names for their main characters. Author of The Baby-Sitters Club, Ann M Martin, held a contest to name two of her characters. Random names work well in realistic settings. People in the real world don't get a personality to go along with their birth name. Little baby Tuano might grow up to be a back-to-the-land hippie, a powerful dictator, or a tax accountant. Random names may be used for minor characters because they are not as important. It won't matter whether the pizza delivery guy is named Frank or Fernaldo.

If the process of choosing a name for your character is like generating power, choosing a random name is nuclear fission. It works well until it doesn't and you end up with a Chernobyl disaster on your pen or keyboard. Thankfully, such disaster can be avoided. When you have a name, fire up your preferred search engine and type it in. The search engine will inform you if your chosen name has undesirable associations. You might have to go back and change things, or you might be okay.

To create an effective example, I wrote five character descriptions and a list of fifteen given names. They were combined and checked for conflicts. The list of names and my results are listed below.

  1. Henry
  2. Langston
  3. Roger
  4. Gary
  5. Chachi
  6. Gertrude
  7. Hannah
  8. Victoria
  9. Ramona
  10. Ziv
  11. Harper
  12. Makana
  13. Jun
  14. Sage
  15. Briar

(click column header to sort results)
Character  
Name  
Name Relationships  
A lawyer with an extreme distrust of gophers, and who owns a pet goldfish.
Briar
Sweet Briar College, Lawyer Briar Webster
An orphan riding the rails unaware of their mobster background.
Harper
Steven Harper
A clown who enjoys humming show tunes and studying physics.
Gary
Gary the Musical Clown is an actual person in Britain.
An overworked teacher who seeks respite from a bad marriage at the local foreign film festival.
Chachi
The first thing that came up is a "Sex Teacher" website
A former professional scuba diver who lost their legs in a car accident and now dreams of an open sea.
Gertrude
Nothing relevant

Personally, I would take Chachi off the list and re-roll for the clown's name. Gary the showtune-humming clown could get me sued, which would be inconvenient. You might have different choices for the changes.

One last tip for people randomly generating names: they can be as specific or as general as you like.

What option do you use most frequently?

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What One Works Best?

What style of naming works best? You're going to hate me for saying this, but it depends entirely on you. There are many advantages and disadvantages to each type. All I can suggest is to try whatever you feel works best for you. These are options, not rules. Maybe you start out randomly choosing a name, but think of a name you'd rather use. Congratulations on your new character and happy writing.

Do You Have any Character Name Origins to Share?

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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 13 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Molly,

      Great piece of writing. Thanks for this valuable hub which is a great help to us who like to pen scripts for community theaters who might use them.

      Thanks again.

      Honored to follow you.

    • Molly Layton profile image
      Author

      Molly Layton 2 years ago from Alberta

      Mel, I'm not sure why Steinbeck named his character Tom Joad. Maybe someone's written an essay about it. Thanks for reading it.

    • Molly Layton profile image
      Author

      Molly Layton 2 years ago from Alberta

      Thank you, Alicia!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a useful hub, Molly. I choose my character's names in the same way as Jodah. You've given me lots of food for thought! Thank you.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Very interesting premise, and very well written. I think the more important the character is, the more important the name. Why did Steinbeck name his protagonist in the Grapes of Wrath Tom Joad? I don't know, but I'll bet he had a dang good reason, and the name is now immortal. Great hub!

    • Molly Layton profile image
      Author

      Molly Layton 2 years ago from Alberta

      That's a very unique take on the idea, Kathleen. Maybe keeping a renaming chart could help.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I tend to write about people from my life. First draft I use their real names for consistency. Second draft I change the names to protect the innocent (or guilt as the case may be), usually picking a name that somehow connects to the real name to me. The problem with this process is that I often can't remember who is who in the story. (!)

    • Molly Layton profile image
      Author

      Molly Layton 2 years ago from Alberta

      Interesting. You don't have to consider the meanings of the names.

    • Molly Layton profile image
      Author

      Molly Layton 2 years ago from Alberta

      That's great to know, Billy!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      A very interesting and helpful hub Molly. I don't usually think too hard about my character;s name. They usually just come to me and if they sound ok I use them. I do agree that maybe I should consider the meaning more. Thank for sharing.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I use a combination of the three, depending on the character and his/her role in the book. Great suggestions, Molly!

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