How To Find Good Names for a Character

One the hard (and, simultaneously, fun/ intimidating/ nerve-wracking) parts of writing a new book is coming up with the characters’ names.

Misnaming a character from the beginning is a difficult mistake.

I’ve written several chapters, or in one case an entire manuscript, and then gone back and changed a character’s name. And believe you me, it’s not done without angst. (Like a child you’ve named, your character begins to embody his or her name, and changing it midway through the book can make the whole story seem “wrong” somehow.)

I changed both characters’ names of my very first romance (after the first draft was completely written). Why? Because I read a blog post by a well-reputed agent making fun of the names. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who’d thought “Emily” and “Jake” were great-sounding names in 2006. So did about 85% of other romance writers. She said if she got one more story with an “Emily,” “Jake,” “Max” (one of my supporting characters in the same story!) or “Luke,” she was tossing it out the window. 

Apparently there’s a cultural consciousness that causes us all to gravitate toward the same names, whether we’re using them to name characters or babies. Certain names just “sound right” in certain years. Or they sound handsome, cute, beautiful or successful.

But this is really silly thinking, I soon realized. Writers shouldn’t be selecting the same names (whether culturally conscious or not) as new moms. Because my character is 30 years old! Which would make “Jake” sound completely wrong for his era.

So I found an excellent baby-name book that tells when names are popular, and learned to name like this:

  1. Figure out how old your character is and date the name back to the character’s “birth.” If my character is 29 in 2011, he would be born in 1982, so I’d have to look for names that were popular that year.
  2. Take your character’s parents into consideration. Would your character’s parents have leaned toward a traditional name, or an unusual name? Would they have bucked trends or have followed them? What part of the country were they in when they named your character, and what influences might their hometown have had? What was your character’s last name when he was named, and did that last name change (through divorce or adoption)? What are the character’s siblings’ names? They should all sound like they came from the same parents’ ideas from that time.

Other tips I’ve learned from romance writers or editors:

  1. Avoid having your hero and heroine sport similar-sounding names or – worse yet – names that start with the same letter. This is partly a visual thing for the page, as when readers scan, they have a hard time separating names like Maggie and Matthew, or Ryann and Ray.
  2. Avoid initials as names. I truly love initials as names (J.R., J.T., T.J., A.J., etc.), but I had an experienced writer tell me once that most editors hate them. Again, it’s partly a visual thing, she said. While initial-names sound nice when spoken aloud, they tend to look clunky on a page, and when it’s your main character, the clunkiness will fill the page. I have to admit, as much as I love Jenny Crusie, I did find her character “C.L.” (“Tell Me Lies”) to have a terribly distracting name.

Here’s my favorite book for coming up with names: It not only lists the name and when it was popular, but it tells possible sibling names, too, that all sound right together: The Baby Name Wizard, Laura Wattenberg. (She has a great web site, too.)

What other things do you, as a reader, hate about name choice in books?

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2 thoughts on “How To Find Good Names for a Character

  1. Thanks, Laurie. I’ve actually been thinking about renaming a couple characters and I like the idea of having a method to help me out – never actually considered a baby book, but it seems so simple!

  2. Thank you for the great post! A lot of naming posts never mention trying to keep the names within the era you are writing!

    I write historical westerns, so to find my character names I jump online and look at census reports. Did you know there are reports available from 1790 to 1930?!?

    To find more about how I do my character searches read my blog:
    “Name That Character! Best Way to Find the Correct Name for Your Western Novel”
    Thank you again for the great post!
    Kateri Maloney´s last blog post ..Old Newspaper As Short Story Inspiration

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