If you’re a writer, one of the first and most exciting things you’ll do is name your cast of characters. You’d think it would be like naming your imaginary friends as a kid, or your dolls, or even your children. But it’s not.
One major mistake writers make is thinking that they, the author, name their characters. They do not. So, if you don’t choose the character’s name, then who does? Well, go inside your fictional world and ask the question again. The answer: your character’s parents choose the character name. So you must give some thought into the character’s backstory (and his/her parents) before choosing a character name. Now that you’re in the right mindframe, here are some other tips to consider before naming your fictional characters:
1. Make the name age appropriate
Decide the age of your character. Deduct that age from the year your story takes place. For example, if your story takes place in 1960 and your character is 25, she was then born in 1935. If your character lives in the United States, use the U.S. Social Security site to see the most popular names for that year.
2. Make the name easy to pronounce
Readers pronounce names in their head as they are reading. If they stumble on a word or name, it will take them out of your story. If you are writing a screenplay, you don’t want a name that is difficult to pronounce for your actors’ sake.
3. Consider your character’s background
A family’s ethnicity, history, and geographic location are tantamount in baby naming. Even if it’s a minor character in your story, take the time to figure out his backstory, his ethnicity, his parents’ backgrounds, the parents’ personalities, and a name that fits. Also consider location of birth and generation. A fifth-generation Italian child may not be named Lorenzo if he’s born in Ohio in 1980. He might just be named Jason.
4. Don’t use similar names for two characters
Using two similar names will be confusing to the reader/consumer of your story. Kirk and Kent, for example, might trip people up. Even when naming twins, be careful that they are unique enough to differentiate to the viewer/reader.
5. But give your siblings the same style of names
Very rarely will parents change their naming styles when naming children. If one child has a traditional name, it would be rare that another would have a created or wild name. If you want a sibling to have a different type of name, make it a nickname (with a secret traditional name). For example, a woman named Skyler probably would not have a sister named Marie (Breaking Bad). If I had to correct that, I’d name them Skyler and Reese.
6. Consider your genre
Romance novel characters have historically been given more flowery, romantic names. Sci-fi characters most often have created names (see tip #8). Consider your genre before naming your characters. Hopefully you have read many works within your genre (all good writers do). Follow suit.
7. Avoid famous name association
There are certain names in our culture that are easily identified with famous or infamous personalities. Adolf, Roseanne, Beyoncé, Madonna, to name a few. Unless it is part of your character’s story or background, avoid using easily-associative names. This also applies to fictional names, as well, like Atticus, Scarlett, or Katniss.
8. Sci-Fi names don’t have to sound alien
It’s difficult to predict what names will be popular in the year 3000, however you don’t have to make your science fiction characters sound like they are from Mars (unless they are). As stated in Tip #2, the name should still be easy to pronounce in the reader’s head. The name Zyxnrid, for example, would be difficult to read or listen to every time the character is referenced—and may detract from your overall story. If you do choose to create your sci-fi name, you may want to:
- Combine two common names to make a less common, but pronounceable name. Example: Donica (Donna and Veronica).
- Use ancient mythological names, or combine two of them. Example: Ceres or Evadne.
- Make it easy to pronounce and spell. Example: Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings.
9. Avoid using character names in dialogue
It’s a soap opera thing that has spilled over into serial television. If you have characters that have an especially close relationship, they would not keep saying each other’s name. This is often a trick of screenwriters to identify their characters, especially for new viewers who are just tuning in. However good writers can establish the relationship in less obvious ways.
In real life, couples will use nicknames and terms of endearment (honey, dear, boo). What nicknames have your characters created for each other? Parents rarely call their children by their full names–unless the kid is in trouble. If you have loving parent characters that are addressing their kids, use a nick name or term of endearment (sweetie, baby, D.J.). An exception to this would be if you want to show the parent character being cold and distant to their child.
That being said, outdated terms like “Sis” and “Cuz” rarely crop up in natural, normal conversation. But they are all over television, especially pilots. Instead of having your character constantly calling her “Sis,” have him ask if she’s “Heard from Mom today?” or ask another character, “Don’t I have the best sister ever?”
10. Have fun choosing character names
Take time to see what “fits.” What was your character’s childhood nickname? Is that an embarrassment when his parents address him in front of his friends? Did your character change his name at any point in his/her life? If so, why? Does your female character want to change her surname when she gets married? Why or why not? Names are such an important part of one’s identity, don’t take it lightly. A name can provide great insight and backstory to a character if you do it right.
Jennifer Moss is an author of a series of mystery novels and the founder of BabyNames.com and PetBabyNames.com. She has over 20 years’ experience naming babies, companies, and fictional characters. If you need further help with character names, write Jennifer, to book a character name consultation.