Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor


Naming your characters appropriately

By Leah Tribolo
©2004, Leah Tribolo
(Originally published in Writer's Digest)

Namestorming is about more that giving your character a name.  Namestorming is about selecting a name that reflects not only the character, but also that character’s role within the book.  Like brainstorming, namestorming is a creative process that should leave you with many ideas to decide between, once you have decided on what your goals for that character are.

A name shapes how the world perceives your characters.

The name John is very simple.  It doesn’t carry a lot of baggage or expectations.  Neither does Sara, Jane, George or Bob. Suffixes such as Jr. Sr. and IV appended to a name to add some weight.  For instance, John doesn’t blend in so much and is more regal with IV added to it.  Jr. gives John a sense of youth while Sr. creates a feeling of age.

A simple and well-used name like Emily is perfect for a secondary character. Alternate spellings can bring attention to a self-effacing name.  Emalee or Emeli gives Emily some flair, perhaps consider Blaike for Blake if the character needs to be noticed.

Aurora and Rahvindra stand out.  A name that is wildly different from others will be taken note of by the reader.  They will wonder what the special reason is.  When naming characters, ask yourself: Why is that character noticeable?  Is there a reason that drives the plot forward?  If not, consider changing it to something more subdued. Names should be reflective of the character and the role they play within your piece, but they should never dominate the story.

Your main characters should have names that are noticeable and unique.

The names should fit within the framework of the story not drawing attention to themselves, just to the character.  A good rule for shorter pieces is that no other character should have a name beginning with the same letter as it takes away from the power of their names. 

Consider a name that will be changeable depending on who is speaking to your main character.  The name Elizabeth is very flexible.  It can be Liz, Beth, Betty, Eliza, Liza or Elizabeth, all of which suggest a different mood.  Elizabeth could be Beth to her mother, Liz to her friends and Liza to her boyfriend and co-workers, making her a more dynamic character.

Names create mood and they help suggest personality, but they do not make the character.  This can be useful when creating a villain.  Why not give him a name that sounds innocent; the name a loving parent gave their child before he or she grew up and became the antagonist of your story.

Ethnic names can be used to frame a neighbourhood that your character enters marking him as an outsider.  This can be useful in showing that the reality of John Smith is not the reality of Akira Nomiku and the culture he lives within.

Different genres have different expectations and standards. 

Suspense can be increased in mystery and crime stories by making a character stand out to draw suspicion away from another character.  Science fiction and fantasy generally have characters with names that increase the feel of being somewhere other than Earth, in the present day.  A mainstream story set in Nigeria will have characters with different names than one set in the United States.  European names tend to be homogenous within their countries, while American names can have more diversity owing to the varied origins of the settlers.  Read your genre and find out what the norms your readers expect are.

Naming characters appropriately is an important part of fiction writing.  In fact, it is just like naming a baby.  The name will follow the character for the rest of his or her life.  So get namestorming and find one that suits your characters. 

Sites to start your search for the right names: