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