How Do You Name Your Characters?

Hi everyone! Happy June! Gosh, it’s almost halfway through the year already.

Anyway, today I wanted to talk about how to name characters. I’m curious to hear from you guys about this aspect of writing, and how you approach it. Mainly, I’m interested to hear:

  • How do you name your characters?
  • Do you think characters should have “meaningful” names?

Personally, I love coming up with character names. It’s such a strangely magical process––by which I mean, I know when I’ve found the right name because it just clicks. I’ll be scrolling through baby name sites, and something will just leap out at me.

But where do you start?

First of all, time period and setting play a role in choosing your characters’ names. For example, when I was choosing names for my characters in The Resurrectionists, I wanted them all to have believable, 18th-century English names (because––guess what?––it takes place in 18th-century England). A Google search of “18th century English names” brings up some good sources, like this list of unique 18th-century British baby names or this list of common nicknames used in the 18th and 19th centuries. So, Google can really come in handy in these situations!

Or maybe your story takes place in a totally different world, in which case there are a lot of cool online fantasy name generators, like this one or this one.

Sometimes meaning is also a factor in naming characters. Personally, I don’t go out of my way to give my characters “meaningful” names (that is, that the meaning of their name says something about their personality), but I know some writers love to do this. In which case, there are a lot of great sources for finding the meanings of names. My personal favorite is Behind the Name, which has a large database of names from all over the world, and includes their meaning, history, and etymology. It even has a surnames section! And you can look up names by meaning, which is pretty awesome (you just have to click on the gear symbol next to the search bar, and select “search meanings”).

A lot of the time, though, character names seem to come out of nowhere––they pop into my head, or I just like the sound of them.

How about you guys?

  • How do you name your characters?
  • Do you ever use name generators or online name databases? If so, do you have any favorite sources?
  • Do you give your characters names that are meaningful to their personalities, or do you just pick names you like? Or both?
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35 thoughts on “How Do You Name Your Characters?

    1. LOL, the same thing used to happen to me! I spent a lot of time on baby name sites, and I always had ads for diapers and whatnot. 😛 I also used to read baby name books in the bookstore when I was like 12, and I’d end up getting a lot of weird looks.

  1. I love how you said you know you found the right one because it just CLICKS. That is so true! I have tried online databases, saying names out loud, and drawing on my endless supply of names (I teach in a school…names are literally everywhere). I tend to just pick a name that feels like THEM. I once only named a character after I started her story. She was called something else (Suzy, I was using it only as a placeholder) until I suddenly just got it. I was typing dialogue someone else was saying to her and it just came to me…he’d call her Emma. It was the weirdest thing!

    1. Whoa, that’s interesting! It’s cool how names can come out of the blue like that. I often go searching for names online, and sometimes I find the right name that way––but other times I don’t know where my characters’ names come from. It’s almost like the character just “tells” me what their name is. 😉

  2. I love looking up the meanings of names and then picking ones that fit the personalities of my characters… there’s something so satisfying about finding the perfect name!

  3. Making up fantasy names can be fun and a challenge. Firstly make them sound pronounceable, then give ’em a certain air of credibility (I mean who is going to take anyone called Z’quigchexi seriously), finally check search engines like a hawk to make sure it’s not being used already; I once crafted this great name for a calculating, shrewd fellow only to find his name was an urban slang word, and not in a very nice way either!
    Recently started to take a main trait of a character, then check translation sites until I find a word which sort of fits and add or take away a letter or two.

  4. laurakirkbride

    I usually use the Behind the Name Random Name Generator when I need some names. When I’m setting it in a certain time period, then I look for popular names of the period and go a little further down the list. I feel picking one of the top ten would be a little too obvious and picking a slightly unusual name makes a character more memorable in my opinion. When I set my stories in a fantasy setting, I tend not to use the traditional ‘fantasy’ languages but go for a more obscure language like modern Greek or Polish. I think they’re more accessible while still being unique.

    Also, I tend to look up the meaning of a name and, to be original, I attribute the name to a character that has completely the opposite traits. For instance, I would deliberately give the name Kratos (which means ‘strong’ in Greek) to a character that was anything but. I just feel that it’s becoming the norm to give characters names whose meanings fit their character and doing the opposite is both original and a little bit funny.

    1. I love the random name generator on Behind the Name, too. And I also try to give characters unique/fitting names, not just the most popular ones of the era! Haha and I like that idea of giving a character a very ironic name.

  5. My main character names come from ideas that are meaningful to me, but maybe not apparent to my readers. Secondary characters are often derived from the name generator tool in Scrivener.

  6. Ooh, this topic is a perennial favorite! I think I have like three character naming posts, although a couple of them have a more specific angle. I really like Behind the Names too.

    Sometimes I have to cycle through a few different names until I find the right one, especially for secondary characters. In Wildings, for a while there was a chauffeur named Maayan, and then someone named Maayan became a graduate student in my department! I decided to not make his name the chauffeur’s, but it’s still in the book. Now it belongs to somebody’s brother.

    1. Awesome! It’s one of my favorite things about writing, too. Names are so much fun to research. I usually stick to names once I’ve chosen them, but sometimes I swap them around. I also re-use names on occasion.

  7. I love coming up with character names. I used to look up baby names online, but thought they usually didn’t have much to offer in terms of unique names. Now I just go through names in my mind until something clicks, for me, sometimes a character’s name comes along after his/her personality is a bit more formed.

    1. That’s usually why I try to get more specific when searching for names––I don’t find searching through popular names all that inspiring, so I like to be creative when it comes to researching names and their etymologies. 🙂 But yes, sometimes the right names just come to mind without me having to search for them. And I agree, it helps to have a sense of the character’s personality first!

  8. I like thinking about how my characters would introduce themselves so if I can come up with a joke or an observation, then I will see if a name would fit. For instance.

    “I’m Jack. What’s your name?” The young man asked.
    “Names Angel,” Angel replied.
    “Innocent and beautiful,” the man observed.
    “More like with a horns holding the halo,” she replied and went back looking at her cell phone.

  9. I tend to use a lot of street names, for some reason. That and Behind The Name. A lot of the fantasy names I use are mash-ups of different names so they don’t sound super exotic or super normal.

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