How to Name Your Characters

Why I Hate the Letter Y and Other Character Naming Pitfalls

It seems a bit cantankerous of me to hate an innocent letter like Y, doesn’t it? I don’t hate it everywhere. I like it in the sky or or in the city, but when that pernicious little letter sneaks into a name where it shouldn’t be, I find myself doubting the writer’s literacy.

All joking aside, this is a problem that needs to be addressed , especially for fledgling writers. So, without further ado, I present some expanded do’s and don’ts of character naming.

Instead of beginning with all the names that should never grace your dialogue tags, I’ll start with good examples of character names and how to create your own.

Dolores Haze aka “Lolita” from Lolita
A completely legitimate first and last name. A name any parent would name their child. The shortened version of the name also rolls of the tongue, which is played on in the novel.

Also to be noted is the wordplay with means an obscurity like a fog, possibly a pollutant, which plays well into the debauchery of the novel and how Humbert is metaphorically blinded while around her.

Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire
In the play, Blanche explains the meaning of her name as “White Woods”. This is also a symbolic name, and important in her feigned innocence. Names with obvious meanings can be good, especially in cases such as this where the character plays up the meaning of their own name for their own purposes.

Note that Blanche is also a legitimate name for the time period of the play. And Dubois is a common surname for people of French ancestry in the Americas.

Jim Casy from The Grapes of Wrath
On the surface, this name appears to be simple. There is nothing wrong with a simple name, in fact, simple names are fantastic as long as they’re not so simple they don’t hearken of character.

Upon closer inspection, we realize there is symbolism in his name. His initials are JC and he is a preacher. Who else shares these initials? Jesus Christ. Thus, the author is calling for a subtle association of the two.

“But-but-but, I’m writing fantasy!” you say, “My character HAS to be named Th’gbilaNaAcronnanomicon!”

“Well, damn,” the slush pile reader says, “I can’t pronounce that. Actually, I’m not even going to try.” And thus your manuscript begins its journey to become something new, most likely a McDonalds cup because it has now taken up residence in the recycling bin.

There are good examples of science fiction and fantasy names:

Gurney Halleck from Dune
This name doesn’t sound like one I’ve ever read before, but yet it sounds believable. Why? It uses naming and phonetic structures from an existing language, but modified to fit the setting. It’s also pronounceable, thank goodness.

Harry Potter
This sounds like a real name, because it is a real name. Don’t be afraid of using real names.

Naming Do’s
Do have your character’s names mean something.
This is something the reader can realize later on, and pretty much see how great a writer you are. Do research into name meanings and have them fit the personality of the character. Lloyd means gray, and would make a great name for an actuary. Rebecca, my name, means snarer of traps (or bound to God) and would make a good name for a trickster.

Do make your names sound believable.
Look through baby naming books and websites. Find less common surnames on the census bureau website. Check to make sure the names you use are real, or for scifi/fantasy, that they sound real. A good indicator that they do is that you can talk about them in conversation and it doesn’t feel awkward.

Do make your names pronounceable to the common reader.
Nothing ejects the reader from the story more than an unpronounceable name. Say it out loud and make sure you have no problem pronouncing it before you force others to try. You want people to be able to talk about your book.

Do pair simple first names with less common surnames.
Two uncommon names sounds a little crazy, but two common names takes the risk of being boring. Strike a balance. Jack Muscaro sounds as real as Addison Brown.

Do have your characters’ names make sense for their time period and setting.
Thaddeus Dees may have a hard time fitting in with the same crowd as Ashley Whitsinger. Raya Diprasurtset is obviously not of Polish descent. Make it fit.

Do take into consideration your character’s personality before you name them.
I’m not Becky, I’m Rebecca. Becky is my cheerleader name. Rebecca is the sophisticated writer. They have different connotations.

Do put thought into the surname you choose.
There are so many out there. You don’t always have to settle for Jones or Smith or Brown. Do your research. Look through the phone book. Make sure it fits the place and time in which your character lives.

Naming don’ts
Don’t use fad names.
For example, Aiden seems extremely popular right now, so you won’t be unique. You want your character to sound like a person, not a fad.

Don’t use overt symbolism.
I’m talking to you, Raven Shadowsdale, emo girl who’s always picked on.

Don’t give all of your characters similar sounding names.
If I read a book with the characters Jason, Jackson, Jacob, John, Joan, and Job, I’m liable to get confused. A good rule of thumb is to cross off letters of the alphabet if you’ve already used a name starting with that letter.

Don’t use stereotypical names.
Sure, Muffy sounds like a preppy New-Englander and Jack sounds like a strong leading man, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if Muffy was an art student and your leading man was named Francis?

Don’t name your character after an inanimate object unless it is a normal name.
That means no Apple, Blanket, or Honey (unless she’s a stripper).
However, Dot and Pearl are normal (though old-fashioned) names.

Don’t use a name without putting it into google first.
Please, do yourself a favor and avoid lawsuits and unnecessary associations.

Don’t use new spellings of common names or objects.
It’s neither cute nor clever, and can blur the line into trashy. Welcome to why I hate the letter Y. Melyssa doesn’t sound sexy. Jerimyah just looks weird. Use common sense and taste, please.

A note on alliteration:
I’ve head a lot of hullabaloo about alliteration sounding unrealistic. I beg to differ. My name is alliterative. So is my mother’s, my best friend’s, a ton of people from my old high school, and so on. It’s not cliche if you use it wisely.

Names to avoid, due to their overuse:
Ace
Rose
any form of Rain
anything like Cat
anything meaning “beautiful” (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Meyer)
almost anything meaning “dark”

Look at the names of the people you come in contact with every day. There should be plenty of inspiration for wonderful character names.