How to Come Up with Character Names

Writing fiction is all about creativity; nothing’s easy, even coming up with names for your characters.

You’d think it’s easy to come up with fictional names, but this is fiction and that means writers have to come up with muckles of character names for just one story or novel.

Now, that’s hard.

Creating character names can create a writer’s block of its own kind. But if you’re creative enough, this is easy.

Have you ever thought of going into your story, taking a stroll in its fictional world, and finding out how your fictional character’s story and culture can influence their name? Wait! Too early for tips. Read on to find how to come up with cool character names.

how to come up with character names

Why Character Names Matter

What’s in a name anyway? Well… can you name your daughter Slut?

Exactly!

The cleverest writers come up with emblematic character names. Some writers come up with character names that are symbolic of their backstories and their persona or foreshadow their purpose/role. For example, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale suggests that the character won’t be an upright individual.

It’s not like everybody chooses to ‘burden’ themselves with symbolic representations; some writers just find random names but somehow these names still bear relation to the character’s attributes.

Simple things like coming up with creative symbolic names can help you, the author, in a lot of ways. A suggestive name can tell your readers a bit about the character without you having to narrate a whole backstory.

What Should A Good Character Name Have?

I always say that fiction writing should always be a flexible process. No one has found a fixed formula coming up with cool character names.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy, but great character names share some attributes.

These are some of them:

1. A good character name is unique. A name has to be born from the story—from a little town, a big city, an imaginary country within which your character lives or is originally from. Some authors have used familiar or famous names but cleverly adapted the names. So, even though the names bear a resemblance, they are not the same.

2. Fits the context. A good character name is contextually appropriate; that is, it fits the era, culture, and location of your story.

3. Fits the genre of the story. Say you give one of the main characters in a romantic piece a weird name like Albus Dumbledore; that wouldn’t fit the genre, but it worked perfectly for the Harry Potter series.

4. A good character name is memorable or haunting without being distracting. For instance, there are names like Dr. Fu-Manchu and Willy Wonka that give readers some sort of impression but don’t pose the risk of providing detours away from the plot, backstory, and character development.

5. A good name helps unveil the character’s role in the narrative. Some authors have mastered the art of creating character names that foreshadow character traits. For example, when Nathaniel Hawthorne came up with the name Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale he knew that his readers would—right away—know that this character was intended to be foolish and dishonest.

great character names share some attributes

How to Name Your Characters

Now that you know what a good name has to have, how do you go about naming your characters?

Lucky you! I’m tipping.

1. Use a Random Name Generator

character name generator 1

You can find almost anything on the internet, and a character name generator website is one of them. These name generators offer the simplest way of finding character names as a simple search gives you mounds of character names to pick from. Some name generators let you choose a genre like a fantasy; therefore, you can pick a name appropriate for your genre.

2. Use the Character’s Traits/Qualities

I’ve already talked about this in the previous sections, a good name reveals a dimension of your character’s nature.

One of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens, came up with names that represented the character’s true nature. For instance, you could tell that someone with the name Slyme is a character that’s always up to no good.

Then there’s J.K. Rowling and her “you know who” villain. Voldemort is a name you can give to a more-than-evil demon, capable of committing unspeakable horrors. It’s so befitting.

voldemort
The meaning of Voldemort’s name. (Image credit: “Voldemort” by longplay on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

3. Use Language and Other Improvised Cultural Derivatives

I said that a good character name fits the context—and in this case, that’d be culture. A name’s meaning can derive from its cultural roots. A lot of Fantasy writers like to create their own language and they usually derive it from languages that are either ancient or in a region similar to their Fantasy world. You can create character names using the same strategy and research meanings of certain names or makeup names from an ancient language or dialect from an ancient civilization.

4. Use alliterative initials

Philip “Pip” Pirrip? Binx Bolling? What about Bilbo Baggins?

bilbo baggins
Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of The Hobbit, has a significant meaning behind both his and his kind’s name. (Image credit: “Open Day at Sarehole Mill – JRR Tolkien – The Hobbit – Bilbo Baggins” by Elliott Brown on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

These names just sound good when they bounce around in your mouth. That’s because alliterations are wonderful and they are a good appetizer for the creative process of fiction writing.

And, maybe, that’s why J.K. Rowling likes using alliterative names in her books. She came up with alliterative character names like Severus Snape, Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Salazar Slytherin, and Rowena Ravenclaw.

5. Avoid Famous Pop Culture or Trademarked Names

Don’t even try to have an Al Gore in your story. Let names like that rest in the annals of history.

It’s not a NO-NO to use names that have become famous in pop culture or infamous but you have to be careful or inventive with the way you put such names in your story. You can use them as nicknames, like some character who seems to be charitable can be mockingly called Bono.

6. Use The Length Of The Name To Your Advantage.

Whether long or short, the length of a name has an impact to some extent. Some authors have short names that sound just perfect, like Hal or Peppy Pip.

Others have long names and they have worked for them. Good examples include Bathsheba Everdene, Benno Van Archimboldi, or Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky.

Oh! Did I forget Major Major Major Major? Unlike this fictional character’s father’s intentions, I’m not joking when I say names like this one work.

Although it’s hard to come up with a long name that works, your readers won’t easily forget the character if you get the long name spot on.

7. Hide Puzzles in the Names

Tip number two on this list talked about using the character’s traits, qualities, or roles. You can do this by being a bit direct but you can also have unvarnished names that suggest the character’s traits or roles.

Be a bit enigmatic, use names that have some suggestive translations in languages other than English.

Take, for example, Darth Vader, which——when roughly translated from Dutch, means “dark father”— and he turned out to be Luke’s corrupted father in the first Star Wars sequel.

darth vader
“While ‘Vader’ does mean ‘Father’ in Dutch, it’s pronounced very differently (‘fah-der’). ‘Vater’, the German word for ‘Father’, is pronounced more like ‘Vader’, however. ‘Darth’ doesn’t mean anything in Dutch or German, although it does, of course, sound a bit like ‘Dark’.” – Force Material

Stop Trying to Be Perfect

There are a lot of other important things that should make you sweat. A good name can help your cause but there are things like character arcs and the depth of your characters that need more of your attention.

Your readers are going to be more aware of these than the character’s name.

Whenever I find it hard to come up with a good name, I use a proxy, move to another thing, and come back later to find an appropriate name. Sometimes, the placeholder ends up being the character’s name and no one really notices.

The Best Literary Character Names

  1. Ebenezer Scrooge [A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens]
  2. Humbert Humbert [Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov]
  3. Atticus Finch [To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee]
  4. Dr. Fu-Manchu [The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer]
  5. Huckleberry Finn [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain]
  6. Long John Silver [Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson]
  7. Philip “Pip” Pirrip [Great Expectations by Charles Dickens]
  8. Dr. Victor Frankenstein [Frankenstein by Mary Shelley]
  9. Sherlock Holmes [The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle)
  10. Willy Wonka [Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl]
  11. Nurse Ratched [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey]
  12. Simon Legree [Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe]
  13. Ignatius Reilly [A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole]
  14. Bucky Wunderlick [Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo]
  15. Milo Minderbinder [Catch-22 by Joseph Heller]
  16. Tarzan [Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs]
  17. Pinocchio [The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi)
  18. Severus Snape [Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling]
  19. Hannibal Lecter [The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris]
  20. Phileas Fogg [Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne]

Specific Things to Consider When Choosing Character Names

We are going back to the “fitting the context” prerequisite, which is the most obvious and important prerequisite for coming up with good character names.

There are things you have to keep in mind so that your character’s name doesn’t stray.

Genre

A character with a name like Count Dracula would sound too dramatic for Romance, but it’s a perfect fit for Horror or Fantasy.

pinocchio
Pinocchio standing beside a skeleton puppet.

Likewise, Pinocchio wouldn’t be a perfect fit for a thriller, but I think it’d work in a horror story as a twisted character who acts like a good little person but has a very dark secret or hobby.

Era (The Time the Story Took Place)

If you’re going for nicknames, you have to understand that there’s a difference between those used in the 18th/19th century and those prevalent now.

Full names are just as different, although most names from a century or two ago have survived to the present times because their stories are just too popular. But you see less and less of names like Professor Moriarty or Ebenezer Scrooge.

And it will certainly do more damage than good when a character in your historical piece is named Jaiden or Hayley.

But, there are other special cases; historical pieces and genres like fantasy and Sci-Fi, for instance, aren’t really bound by these periodic limits and tend to use names that bear a likeness to names of historical figures or simple names from centuries ago.

Place

Another important question you should be asking yourself is: where does the story take place?

Different English regions have different common names. For example, a name like Dwayne Jackson suggests an American character. Patrick Sterling or Gary Maguire sound like some British lads.

Not every name is this suggestive, but you have to have a couple of names that befit the place just to make the characters fit the setting of the story.

George R. R. Martin gives an insight into his methods for coming up with interesting character names in his A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Character Names You Should Avoid

There are many types of names that—oftentimes—don’t work but for brevity’s sake, I’ll give you only four types.

1. Names Whose Pronunciations Disagree With Their Spellings

If you’re writing a story in English (Not a translated story), it’s better to use names that have a straightforward relationship between their spelling and pronunciation.

I can’t speak or read French, so I had a tough time accepting that Henry was pronounced “On-ree” (like Thierry Henry? The famous French soccer legend). Of course, if he were a fictional character in a Novel (written in English), people pronounce the name as “hen-ree,” but you do get my point, right?

There are a lot of names that people find hard to pronounce—and some of these names are from English-speaking regions, Ireland, for example.

2. Unnecessarily Long Names

Avoid names that are just long for no reason at all. In real life, long names are okay but in a fiction piece, names don’t have to be mouthful unwarrantedly. If you think the name is too long but still want to use it, it’s wise to abbreviate it.

3. Names You Just Happen To Like

Naming your characters isn’t the same as naming your kids, you can’t just give the characters a name that you like.

If the character is a vile individual, they have to have a befitting name. Like who names a virtuous pastor as Vlad? I’m not saying eastern European names can’t be good for men of God, but some names have been stereotyped as villains by the western media, and Vlad is one of them.

Plus, if you give your characters names that you just happen to like, your story is likely going to have names that are gender, cultural, age insensitive, among many things.

But if there’s a name you love and it also happens to fit your character, let them have the name.

4. Names That Are Too Similar

You’re not going to name just one character; one name isn’t enough, even for some flash fiction pieces. Probably, your story will have more than just a few key characters, and it’s your job to make it easy for your readers to distinguish between them. For most of the characters, your readers won’t be able to distinguish them using their physical appearances and that’s the reason you should avoid using names that sound too similar.

There are elements in the names that you should avoid:

One of those things is similar beginnings. For example, Harford and Harold or Bent and Ben are way too similar to be in the same story. Similar endings are just as confusing as similar beginnings. If your characters have names that end the same way, like Edith and Judith or Mattson and Madison, that will be confusing.

There are also those names that have repeated vowel sounds. Think about Lee and Bree or those that rhyme like Kean and Jean.

How to Test Your Character Name

In the spirit of ticking all checkboxes, there are a couple of questions you can ask yourself to make sure you’ve come up with a perfect name.

Here are some of those questions:

  • Is it clear? The name has to be clear, easily pronounceable, and of good length.
  • Is it realistic? Just because the story takes place in an imaginary realm doesn’t warrant you giving your characters unrealistic names. Whether original or made up, the names have to sound believable.
  • Is it original? The name has to be original but not too original. King Arthur is too original, and Adam Ramsey or Hussein would be just original.
  • Is it intentional? If you intentionally came up with a name that reveals something about the character or story, check if it actually achieved that.
how to test your character name
Character name checklist.

Last Words on How to Come Up With Character Names

Yes, you have to get the character names right, but there’s a lot of work after you’ve named your characters and have to let this stand in the way of starting a great story.

You can always come to your names once your story gets off the ground. And… this way, you can efficiently check if the character name fits the story or vice versa.

Get started, don’t let anyone delay you—be it Sherlock Holmes or Pip.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.