How to Choose Character Names

Despite something being as innocuous as a character name, what you choose is important. Before you’ve even started writing your story, you’re tasked with a showstopper. Many writers spend months twirling their thumbs, hoping to come up with the perfect character name. And if you’ve read any number of book reviews, you’ll notice people complain about character names and their relevance to both the story and genre.

The short answer: Yes, choosing the perfect character names is essential. But it isn’t something to spend months toiling over.

So, how do authors come up with character names that readers never forget? Names like Holden Caulfield and Hannibal Lecter. How do authors create a cast of characters with double meanings that feed into the story’s motif? By using the strategies below, you’ll find useful information to help craft relevant and appropriate character names.

Use name meanings to ease the character naming process.

If you know a few things about your character, do some research. Baby name websites are a wealth of knowledge in that department and can help you turn a name like Raven into Branwen, which means beautiful raven in Welsh.

Damon Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries is one such example. The name, Damon, means to tame or subdue. In the ancient story of Damon and Pythias, Damon risked his life to save his friend from execution and the name became a true sign of friendship. The story of Damon from The Vampire Diaries shows this time and time again, when Damon Salvatore continually puts others before himself, even if he tries to act like nothing in the world matters to him.

Most names derive from other languages with meanings that aren’t clear. Using these meanings, their connotations, and your character’s background, you can create a character name that fits your character and their personality.

Check baby name websites to choose relevant names for the era of your story.

Baby name websites aren’t just used to create a name with a double entendre. They’ll also help fit the name to your story’s generational era. Names go in and out of style, and those styles should be adhered to in fiction writing.

The exception to the rule is fantasy, where you’re crafting an entirely original world from scratch. In these instances, choosing character names is more difficult. Some people will complain when they see normal names in these types of stories, but those outliers shouldn’t worry you. There are infinite possibilities when it comes to character names, but you don’t have to struggle to be uniquely creative while creating them.

If we continue with the example above, Damon was a popular name in the early 1900s, when nearly 1,000 people were named Damon every year in the United States alone. Since, the name has declined in popularity, before a sudden spike in 2009 garnered by the release of the popular television series.

Choosing character names distinctly out-of-place might put readers off or make it overly complicated. That said, names are easily explainable with reason and logic. Some people are named after parents or grandparents, making older names relevant in a more modern generation.

Pick character names that sound and look different.

When you’re working with a cast of more than one, choosing differently sounding and looking names is important. My developmental editor noted this in a trilogy I wrote a few years back when I used three “E” names in my main character cast.

Damon, Stefan, Jeremy, Alaric, Elena, Caroline, Bonnie, Tyler, Matt. This and many more of the name from The Vampire Diaries cast have both different looking and sounding names. None of these names even begin with the same letter. As the cast grows in later seasons, this becomes more difficult. We start to see names like Alaric and Alexis crop up, but Alexis is quickly referred to as Lexi to nix this. The most similar names I found were Elena and Elijah, which have similar beginning and ending sounds.

Where Can You Find Amazing Character Names?

Using name generators and baby name sites is the best place to start. Even if you don’t use the exact name the generator creates, you can do some research and tweak it to fit your character and story. Resources are an author’s best asset.

These are a few of the ways I come up with character names:

  • The phone book
  • Baby name websites
  • History books
  • The SSA baby name archive
  • Name generators

There are name generators for nearly every genre, which makes them a highly effective and easily accessible tool for writers who want to create a character name shortlist stat. School yearbooks are another great place to start your search—if you still have any of those lying around.

That said, baby name websites are my favorite for well-rounded research, as they usually have the name, meanings, and backgrounds all in one space, making them an excellent one-stop-shop.

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