Friday, April 11, 2014

What's in a Name? Choosing Names for Your Fictional Characters.

How do you name your characters? Do names matter? Do you stick with names you know or have heard? Do you make them up yourself? I’m sure most writers have some type of system, and I would like to share mine with you.

First of all, when I try to think of a character name, I usually need help getting past the everyday Jennifer and Jason, Debby and Donald, Michael and Michelle. These names don’t evoke emotion in me anymore because I have seen them so many times.

(Ok, Michael is my son’s name--he is named after my father-in-law, but that’s a personal emotion—not a reader emotion.)

When choosing character names, it is important to consider genre and your audience. If you are writing leveled readers for first graders, by all means, use names like Tim, Bob, and Jan. You throw Aretha in a first grade leveled reader, and your manuscript is likely to go in the circular file.

Here are a few random(ish) names (some pulled from my writing, others truly random). What emotions do these names evoke? Who do you picture in association with each name? Do certain names seem to lend themselves well to certain genre?


I will share my perspective on those names in a minute. But first I want you to consider: 

Do you get a different vibe from Katherine versus Catherine? 

How about Cathy/Kathy? Kate?    Kristy/Christie?    John/Jon/Jonathan?  

What about Lizbeth and Elizabeth? 

For me, a different spelling can completely change my perception of a character. (Note: Please do not take offense if one of these names is yours and you do not like my initial assumption--I know many people with these names who are not described by my initial reactions--for demonstration purposes only).

Leda – Pretty and exotic, but older woman.

Arnetha – Could be sci-fi, Fantasy

Beck – Strong and Handsome. 

Lindsay – High school girl—cheerleader? Popular.

John – Tall, strong, solid

Leon – Small stature, whiny.

Ruth - Shy, dark hair, glasses.

Ryan – High school – Popular, Football player

Kristy – Mom of young children, pretty, blond

Kate – Strong, tall, dark hair.

Elizabeth – Woman of stature, Wealth, a noble name

Charles – A young boy trying to be a man. (Charlie...wants to be called Charles)

James – Older, a gentleman

Katherine – tall and strong of character

Laura – Historical name, strength of character

Jennifer – Mom (Jen or Jenny if younger character)

Joe – Comedian (This is personal; every Joe I know is a joker).

Daniel – Strong, dark hair

Steve – slim, dark hair

Loraine – curly dark hair, exotic eyes

Now, you may completely disagree with my visualization of these names…and that’s okay. The main thing is to establish that people will judge your character by their name; names have significance. 

Sometimes I will pick a temporary character name to use in my draft, simply so I can get on with the draft without spending time picking the perfect name for my character. Other times my character will change his or her essence and prompt me to change their name due to my preconceived notions regarding their name.

Currently, I have two main ways that I pick my character’s names—besides out of thin air like I did with Loraine.

            1.   Online search:
This may look different each time you search depending on what you are looking for.

·         Interesting baby names
·         Lawyer names
·         Noble names
·         Cheerleader names
·         Baby names 1912
·         Vietnam Wall names
·         Pioneer names

           2. Cemeteries
Yes, cemeteries. I look at the names (and dates) on headstones in old family cemeteries. Headstones are particularly helpful for my historical fiction. I learn:

·         Historical names
·         Popular names in a certain time-period
·         Average age of death in a certain time period

Taken at Turkey Creek Cemetery on a recent trip to Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky.

To these name-finding resources I would add:

  1.  Phonebook: if you still own one
  2.  Genealogy search: can provide information on average family size etc.
  3. Family: personally I would use extended family, deceased grandparents etc. 
  4.   Bible: look at the “begets”—there are lots of name options there. 

How do you choose character names? Have I given you any additional resources to check out? Comments are appreciated. Follow me on social media for future tips.



  1. I often use a temporary name, too.
    I really like Leda, Arnetha and Beck. Would you mind if I added them to my list of possibilities?

    1. I don't mind at all, MJ. Thanks for reading.