3 Steps to Naming Your Characters

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

Naming characters is one of those things that baffled me for a long time.  How would I ever find the right name for my characters?  Names like Humbert Humbert, Holden Caulfield, Hannibal Lecter, Mary Poppins or even Wilbur (Charlotte’s noble pig friend), names where immediately the character would come to mind.  Names like that always eluded me.

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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

William Shakespeare

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As some of you may recall, in January Lawyer-Hubby and I had our first child, dubbed “Little Guy.”  Finding the right name for Little Guy took months of debate and discussion.  I thought naming characters was hard… man, was I wrong.  Naming a real kid is a zillion times harder.

Thankfully, we learned some things along the way that helped us make the naming process go a little bit smoother.  I realized afterwards that these same steps can be very useful for naming characters as well as real people.

Step 1: Have basic parameters for the name.

Is the name supposed to be flowery or no-nonsense?  Do you want the name to be long and flowing or short and to the point?  Is it foreign and exotic, or a name that’s as all-American as apple pie?

This step is much easier when you’re dealing with a character and not a soon-to-arrive infant because with the character you at least know some things about the personality of the person being named.  Even if the characters’ personalities evolve over time, you can set up some basic parameters based on what you already know.  I find that jotting down some character notes on one side of an index card can be helpful.  Then you can flip the card over and write name suggestions on the reverse.

Step 2: Use the Internet.

There are two resources that I find tremendously useful for naming characters: BabyNames.com and the Social Security website.  Here’s a quick run-down of how I use each site.

Social Security Website gives you the top names registered with Social Security for any year.  If you’re writing something set in current-day, you can double-check against the website to make sure your name choices are current.  If you’re writing something set in the past, this website is especially useful because you can check to make sure the names you’re using are relevant to that time.  For instance, since I write mostly middle grade and YA, this website helps me name the parent and teacher characters because I can calculate how old those characters are, then search for names from that year.

BabyNames.com, like many of those name-your-baby sites, allows you to look up origin of names as well as meanings and variations.  Once I have a short list of names for a character, I use this site to look up origins and meanings to see if the name fits the character on a thematic level.  I also check out variations in spelling or versions of the same name to see if one might be a better fit for my character.  Of course, I don’t obsess with the meanings of names for every single character, but in some situations it can be useful to know what a character’s name actually means.

Step 3: Try the name on for size.

When we were naming Little Guy, we would try one name out for a week or so, then the next week we’d try another.  We didn’t actually reveal the name until Little Guy was born, in part because we were trying different options all the way up until it was go-time.

You can do the same thing with your characters.  Try names out and see if they stick, but don’t feel like you’re married to one particular option.  After all, changing a character’s name is as easy as doing Find-Replace in your document.  Trust me, it’s much easier than doing a legal name change once you’ve signed the kid’s birth certificate.

Any other name-related resources you’d like to share?

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