Creating Character Names #IWSG

It’s the 1st Wednesday of the month again. That’s when I take part in Alex J. Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group. I encourage you to check out their website and even sign up for the IWSG Newsletter. Today I’m going to explore character names as I answer the #IWSG question for June:

Which is harder for you to come up with, book titles or character names?

I have a much harder time coming up with a book title than I do good character names. While a book title needs to be catchy and clever, there are some good guidelines and tools available to help name characters. What are some of them?

The root of character names

Many names have an underlying meaning. “Delilah” means desired or seductive. A character with this name will surely evoke thoughts of Samson’s downfall. Maybe you want this. If not, consider something else; perhaps “Deborah,” the mighty warrior and prophetess, judge of Israel, in the Bible.

Consider Ethnicity

How you use ethnicity in naming your character can go a long way toward helping you with characterization. An Asian American could just as easily have the given name “David,” as he would, “Yuan.” But the former will signal to the reader that he is assimilated into American culture. “Yuan” is more likely traditional. Either way, you will want to have a last name like “Tsui” or “Lu” if you don’t want to give a specific description of your character’s ethnicity. This goes a long way toward following the rule of “Show. Don’t tell.”

One of my favorite online tools to help with this process is a Fake Name Generator. The great thing about this particular name generator is that under its advanced settings you can specify the character’s ethnicity (right down to the region) as well as their gender and age.

Speaking of age and nicknames…

When’s the last time you heard a 3-year-old called “Richard?” He would more likely be called “Ricky.” Decide whether or not your character will have a nickname, and under what circumstances it will be used. Just like a given name, a nickname will have to match aspects of the character such as personality, appearance, hobbies, etc.

Some nicknames are ironic, like the 400 lb. bus driver whom everyone calls, “Tiny.” Others might be descriptive like the basketball player called “Stretch,” or the daredevil whose friends call him, “Crash.”

I recently read a wonderful book called, “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.” It was about a little boy named Sam Hill, who was born with ocular albinism, making the pupils of his eyes red. For that, he gained the nickname, Sam Hell (along with other names like the Devil. This had a profound effect on Sam.

Character Names

Names by Gender

You’ve probably noticed that I am using mostly males as examples. That’s because non-traditional nicknames are used more often by males than females, but there are certainly plenty of female nicknames to go around, including unisex names that will give your readers the impression that a female named “Michaela” who goes by “Mickie” might be a tomboy. If you do use a Unisex name, be sure to let your readers know immediately whether your character is male or female so they don’t struggle to form a mental picture of who you are writing about.

Avoid these Names

Avoid iconic names like Adolf (unless you are writing historical fiction set in the early 20th century Germany or Austria). Likewise, Cher, Madonna, and Elvis will get in the way of your readers separating your character from their namesake. Also, avoid character names which are difficult to pronounce in the language in which your book will be published. Most people who have read the Old Testament of the Bible have glossed over some of the more difficult to pronounce names. You don’t want your readers to do that with your book.

One tricky rule

Names that start with the same letter or have a similar sound, for example, “Brett” and “Bart,” will be difficult for your readers to keep straight. I am currently reading a fantastic book by John Grisham called, “The Last Juror.” In it are two characters named, “Wiley and Willy.” I’m nearly done with the book and I still have to remind myself who’s who.

Before the internet became part of our daily lives, Moms relied on baby name books to help them name their unborn children. Now, you can use online name generators. I highly recommend giving a lot of thought to your characters’ names. They can make a big difference in how other characters, and your readers, see them.

About Heather Erickson

I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My books The Memory Maker’s Journal and Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, are available at

I also blog about living with cancer at, Facing Cancer with Grace.

My Family
The Erickson Family, Photo by Everbranch Photography


20 thoughts on “Creating Character Names #IWSG”

  1. Excellent advice, Heather. I particularly appreciate it when an author takes care to avoid the problems of difficult to pronounce names and of two names that are similar. I’m surprised that Grisham’s editor allowed Wiley and Willy to get through. Was there something in the plot that made it necessary for these names to be so similar?

    • Hi Karen, There was a reason for the Willy, but not the Wiley. I was surprised, as well. It was still the best Grisham book I have read. “The Last Juror.” It was more about a Mississippi town and a “carpetbagger” who becomes a part of the town and buys/runs the newspaper. It takes place in the 70’s and touches on social issues. It was different from his usual law novels.

  2. Great tips, Heather. I have been called out by mis-selecting names in some of my books (by my critique group) and mostly, they were right. As you say, the name tells a lot about the person. If the indcators are wrong, I need to explain.

    Of course, sometimes, my group was just flat-out wrong!

    • Hi Jacqui, It is SO easy to do. In one of my manuscripts when I realized I’d made this mistake problem, I made many changes to first names. Then I noticed that there were 3 last names in the book that were similar. It’s little details like this that non-writers don’t realize we as writers have to watch for. Have a wonderful launch!

  3. If a character doesn’t tell me their name, I often google ‘baby names’ and scroll through names and their meanings and look for one that has meaning that relates to who the character is. It’s like a little easter egg.

    • That’s a great idea, Patricia. I see that a lot of Bible names. They have a meaning in the Hebrew that matches their personality. It can help the reader remember the character better, as well.

  4. Great points! I spend an inordinate amount of time on names, considering backgrounds, heritage, religion, and the time period in which the character was born. Maybe it’s overkill, but I want the character to be authentic. I agree that if the name is distracting, it takes away from the story.

    • Hi Lee. I think I spend more time than I should on character names and too little time on my title. I see great titles out there and maybe if I worked a little more, mine could be clever, too. But I agree with you that character names should be authentic. People have to put up with them for over 300 pages so they ought to be good. Have a wonderful week!

  5. Great thoughts on character names. I would be confused by names similar as those in that Grisham book too.

    That random name generator site sounds cool – off to check that out. 🙂

    • Thank you, Ellen. Best wishes on you cozy mystery series release. With a title like Murder at the Marina, your book is sure to be a hit!

  6. Thanks for these guidelines!

    I’ve joined the Insecure Writers Support Group (badge is on bio page of my site) and have a few suggestions to share.

    I’m a speech-language pathologist and have hundreds of former client names to use. Further, as do many writers, I like to hang at coffee houses, near the order pick-up window so I can hear all the drink recipients’ names called out…some peeps are very creative1

    • Hi, PJ. You have some great ideas for getting names that I had never thought of before. I guess I have to listen more at the coffee shop. Welcome to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!

  7. Good tips. I did have two main characters with names beginning with B in my first book, but I managed to mix it up for the other three.
    Welcome to the IWSG!

  8. I love online name generators. They even have them for fantasy names. Brilliant stuff.

    Iconic names can work. I remember Cher from Clueless as a perfect example. But, sparingly and only in specific circumstances.

    • Hi Liz. I agree. These generators seem to blow the cobwebs off of my brain. Otherwise, you can get stuck on something as simple as a name. And you can always change it later if it’s not quite right.

  9. When you’re a reader and not a writer it boggles the mind to see how much thought needs to go into the background of writing a novel. I completely agree about not giving characters similar sounding names – that always messes with my head when I’m reading a book!

    • Hi Leanne, I think it’s like any job. When you’re doing it well, it looks easy. I recently had a dear friend comment to me that she quit blogging because of how much work it required. It made me smile to know that there was someone who knew it wasn’t as easy as people think it is. Thankfully, it’s worth it, as your guest blogger did such a beautiful job of sharing today at Cresting the Hill.

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