Reader Question: How Do You Name Your Characters?

This reader question and answer originally ran in my April newsletter. If you’d like to sign up for my newsletter, and get all the posts mailed directly to you, sign up here. We do monthly giveaways and have “sneak peeks” at chapters from upcoming books.

This question is from my book club friend (and also new beta reader) MaryAnn Perdue:

Q: Is there a special process you use to name your characters?

A: I get all my names from a baby name book by Laura Wattenberg called “The Baby Name Wizard.” It not only gives a list of hundreds of names, but adds nicknames, variations in spelling, possible brother and sister names (which I use!), what eras the name was popular (you can’t give a born-in-the-80s, 30-year-old hero a popular 2014 name!), etc. It’s such a fun book.

My heroines’ names were all predetermined years ago (because they are sisters and mentioned in each other’s books — I said somewhere that their mother loved France, and that she gave her daughters all French-sounding names — Giselle, Lia and Noelle).

But my heroes’ names I come up with for each book, based on the personality I want them to convey. “Fin” was a strange choice, I must admit, but it suited the quiet hero I had in mind for The Red Bikini. “Evan” is a name I always liked, and had the sharp “v” in there that sounds tough to me, so it worked for my tough, cranky sea captain in Ten Good Reasons. I’m currently writing my first “nerd hero” for Book 3 and named him “Elliott.”

Secondary characters are actually a little harder. You don’t necessarily need a name you “like.” You simply need a name that can convey quite a bit about the character simply by the name. Since you have so few words to develop secondary characters, names go a long way. The name might signify the era the character was born, the probable social status of the character, the region of the world the character was born, etc. For secondary characters, sometimes names just jump out at me. “Fox” and “Tamara” in The Red Bikini did; “Kyle” and “Dennis” in Ten Good Reasons did. But other names — like “Rabbit” and his real name “Henry” in The Red Bikini and like “Cora” in Ten Good Reasons — take me some time. For those, I usually pour a tall glass of wine and flip through my Baby Name Wizard book (sometimes several nights in a row) until I land on a name that sounds right for the person I’m picturing.

So far I haven’t worked my way through all my favorite names, but I’ll probably come to readers for advice in a few more books!

I also wrote this post in 2011 called How To Find Good Names for a Character that gives actual tips, if you’re writing your own book!

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