Ideas for Naming Characters

AutoCrit hosted a webinar yesterday about naming book characters. Here is a summary of methods and ideas to consider recommended by the lively hosts, Daniel and Gareth, and the audience of sixty active writers.

1. The Origin Story

  • Ask yourself where were your characters born? Where did they come from? When did or do they live?
  • Today, it’s easy to search on the internet for what names were popular at certain times and to see what baby names were popular or still are.
  • Attendees said they used physical phone books, surfed the internet for old yearbooks for names and nicknames of the period, and checked cemeteries and obituaries for ideas.

2. First Sound or Letter

  • Harsher consonants, for example, K and T, tend to work well with harsher characters.
  • Be careful not to have too many characters with similar sounding names because it may confuse readers.
  • Alliteration works but look up names and meanings for characters to make sure it all makes sense.

3. Baked-In Allegory

  • Find words that fit like in the Harry Potter series, “Valdemort.” In French, mort means death which builds in a villainous thought.
  • The baked-in allegory can work the other way, too, for example, giving a character a name that makes the audience think he or she is going to be doomed. But then that turns out not to be the case.
  • Think of names reminiscent of other known heroes, heroines, and/or villains.

4. Clever (Hidden) Rhymes

  • Hannibal Lecter of Hannibal the Cannibal fame (Silence of the Lambs) conjures up an image remembered for years.
  • Sometimes the names can be not-quite-rhymes, but what a last names sound like – be it positive or negative.
  • This method can be a subtle way of linking two concepts because a name sounds like something that the character is not.

5. Use Tools

  • Check out online name generators and see what sparks you, and then adjust it.
  • Reedsy has one for genre and locations.
  • Daniel recommends Behindthename.com, and after I checked it out, I say the same.

6. Pay Attention to Rhythm

  • Does the name work as a drumbeat? Read your book out loud and make sure the cadence is right.
  • Consider iambic pentameter with the stress on second syllable since people tend to naturally speak this way in English. There was a reason Shakespeare liked it.
  • Don’t use names people can stumble over and make a story difficult to read. Stephen King discusses this in On Writing too.

7. Other Thoughts

  • Walk through the telephone book and use a first name from one name and a last name of another.
  • Use names from other cultures to add variety.
  • Look through old movies and movie credits for ideas.
  • Think about the social status of the character and whether he/she should be labeled with wealthy names of the time or names of rulers.
  • If it works, use puns, too, depending on the tone of the story.
  • Remember – it’s about the audience, so make sure it fits.

Thank you, AutoCrit, for this interesting session, and fellow attendees for your great ideas. Below is the link to the full session. If you have more thoughts to share, please leave a comment!

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