If you had to name your baby today, which name would you choose?
Pretty far-reaching decision, isn’t it?
After all, your offspring will have that label stuck to them for the rest of their lives like an old bumper sticker. And that rest is a pretty long way to go, because their lives have only just begun.
It’s exactly the same with your characters. They need your love and your careful attention too. Don’t be a mindless character mommy or daddy and baptize your mental kids “Joe Schmoe” and “Jane Plain.” No, no, no!
Instead, use their names to introduce them to your reader unobtrusively. Just by mentioning their names, you can make them shimmer and shine already! You tell nothing, while telling it all.
It’s a very subtle and elegant way to characterize your darlings.
Many of literatures’ finest characters are well remembered by their names: Gandalf (Lord of the Rings), Humbert Humbert (Lolita), Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Molly Bloom (Ulysses), Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), Harry Potter, James Bond…
So let’s create some unforgettable characters, shall we??
In this post, you will learn:
- The most important rule about character creation
- Two basic ways to create a killer character name
- The one thing you should never do when choosing a name for your character
- How to come up with a great name for a villain
- Some practical tips and tricks on where to start
And let’s not forget the goodie…
Character Names Kickstarter PDF
This PDF contains a short summary of the main points of this post. It also includes all of the character name examples you will find in the post.
They should inspire you to find your own names – or you could just use any of these names as they are for your own stories. I’m releasing the copyright on these names, so feel free to use them for your own purposes!
Download this for inspiration, plus to keep as a handy reminder on how to create your perfect character names:
Now let’s jump right into it, and create some character names that will wow your reader’s socks off.
Good Character Names: Who Is Your Character?
The overarching, underlying, foundation-building million dollar question is: Who is your character?
Your character’s name should be an extension of her personality! Like an arm or a leg is an extension of our physical persona, our names kind of stick out into all directions too… And like an arm could grab you, your character’s name can grab your reader’s attention.
Including just a hint of deeper meaning in your character name is fun for your reader. It adds depth to your story, another layer. Readers can sense there is something behind the name, but they can’t put their finger on it. And that makes your writing that much more intriguing.
So the name should somehow touch on your character’s nature. However, you can do this in several ways:
You could allude to the personality of your character:
- Hart Brom: A brutal guy with a face like minced meat; works as a bouncer
- Carla Spiller: Alternative Punk-rock girl with pierced lips
You could allude to what your character stands for in the story:
- Jacob Bridges: Diplomat and negotiator, trying to bring peace to two countries at war
- Ramona Goodman: Enjoys life, and stands for positivity and delight
You could also allude to what happens to your character:
- Henry Squabb: Dies in a car crash, unfortunately. R.I.P.
- Vera Unica: Will become Prime Minister. Hooray for her!
The second and the third approach come particularly handy for minor characters. You can give those folks a name that is a little hint on what they do or what will happen to them, a “label,” and that’s okay. If you treat your main characters like close friends, then feel free to treat your minor characters as acquaintances…
Also, in a well-developed story, often who the characters are and what they want can’t be separated. One leads to the other. Their motivation interlocks with the plot like a well-oiled machine. For example, Jacob Bridges will not only try to make peace in the plot; to achieve peace might also be his inner drive – a born diplomat!
Ok, now you know where you want to go. But how do you get there?
To choose a character name, you could take two paths (or a combination of the two):
1. Allude by Association with Other Words
You have heard the word a couple of times already in this post, and yes, prepare to hear it a gazillion times more…: To allude. The character’s name should allude to who he is.
That means his name should remind us of other words, but in such a subtle way that we hardly notice it. Maybe the word just sounds similar, or is cut short, or combined and propped up with other syllables.
Maybe it’s a word we hardly use and thus are not very conscious of, maybe you use a synonym. Twist it a bit and rough it up around the edges. You have many options.
Practice the art of “being imprecise,” of hitting near enough, but not quite. Kind of like when a fat fly is sitting on your table, and you want to chase it away, but not hit it… Practice the mis-hit!
In any case, when we hear your character’s name, we should get a subconscious impression. His name should pull our strings subliminally, taking advantage of the long history we have with all those different words that surrounds us.
Your character’s personality, as you show it throughout the story, will then do the rest of the work.
For example, let’s get back to that not very likeable guy from above, Hart Brom.
Hart reminds you of hard (and in my mother tongue German, hart is the precise translation of hard). And Brom could remind somebody of “broom,” as if he was sweeping out all the unwanted guests. Still, first and last name are not too obvious. There you have it, Hart Brom: A name that works by association!
Or if you don’t like that name, how about Hal Walker instead. Could it be that he walks people out…?
2. Allude by Association with Sound
Here is another option for you, if you are good with language (and I bet you are): Instead of alluding to words, allude to sounds!
Sounds strange to you? You are not an animal impersonator, you say?
Fair enough, but consider this: Any combination of letters we hear gives us a specific feeling, even if it doesn’t mean anything.
Sounds very odd, makes us feel strange, maybe even uneasy (yes, in most of the Western world, we like vowels).
The lizard people in the fantasy role playing games I played had names like that. That was to lend them an uneasy feeling, and make them sound like snakes, lizards, and other erratic, yellow-eyed creepers…
The sounds in this name give us a feeling of depth, of power and education, of moderation even. Tolkien knew exactly how to name his wizard.
The soft and long sounds (a, d, l, f) let us sense a deep, grounded strength. The shortness of the name (it feels like there is no last name) makes it sound kind of modest, the repetition of the a makes it smoother, almost like an understatement of a name.
The name is strong and soft at the same time, just like the magician it represents. We get a good impression of who Gandalf is, even though his name doesn’t remind us of any words.
Here are some more examples of names I cooked up myself:
- Henrietta Nadine Stubberbal: Always nervous and slightly neurotic woman
- Chip Way: A guy like a helium balloon; bubblegum chewing, easygoing, and not worrying about anything, no matter how big his troubles are
- Edmund de Dufour: A dignified and very educated baron of old ancestry
Take a moment to guess: Can you feel why these names would work for these characters?
And now, let’s have a little quiz, shall we?
Character Names Quiz
Let’s play a game. See if you can guess the traits of the following characters (post your answers in the comments if you want, and find the solutions in the download).
1. Which one of these two is the hard-ass, and which one is soft and sensitive?
Stone Wallace and Chris Perkins
2. Which one of these is the quick one, and which one is slow as a slug?
Biff Reed and Alphonse Atkinson
3. Which one of these is interesting, and which one bores us to death?
John Smith and Antwan Herzegger
4. Which one of these is helpful and friendly, and which one is somber and dark?
Demian Sullivan and Angela Lamb
How to Bring It Together
Now you might be asking yourself how to bring all of this together.
Well, let me tell you it’s not as complicated as it sounds.
You are now aware of the basic guidelines. Other than that, just trust your gut. There is no marked-off line between “right” and “wrong.” Up to a certain point, it’s a matter of taste.
This is a semi-conscious process. And I’m sure you have accumulated an excellent gut feeling over many years of reading and maybe writing. All of your story’s craziness stems from your brain, you are the author, so you know what’s too much and what’s not enough.
Just trust your instincts. Sit down and play around with your character names. Then look at what you got and tweak it:
Name sounds too strange?
Think of all the common names you know, and make it sound a bit more “vanilla.”
Name sounds too boring?
Be more ballsy, and try something unusual and creative.
Name doesn’t express what you want it to express?
Look again at the trait you want to allude to. Try a related word or a synonym instead.
In conclusion: Twist it and tweak it a little, until it feels right. If you can’t find a good one, start all over again. Luckily, the possibilities are endless. That’s the nice thing about art.
The Tight Rope Act
Nevertheless, let me give you one important tip on the way. Whatever you do, you should always keep this in mind:
Don’t name your character’s traits too directly!
That’s the tight rope act you are about to commit: You do want to allude to who your character is, but you don’t want to label her too bluntly. That would just look inept, as if you hadn’t been able to come up with a better name.
Naming a clumsy character Herbert Clumser?
Don’t do it! That’s just too obvious. It feels crude and manufactured.
However, there are exceptions: If you are writing a children’s book or a fairy tale, or a comic-like adventure in which everything is more simplified, stylized and clear cut, then go for it.
In a story that clearly tells us who the good ones and who the bad ones are, a label for a name can be enjoyable. The Joker’s name is part of the fun. He wouldn’t excite us that much if he was called Edward Malisse.
Bonus Technique: Counter-Describe Your Character’s Trait
I will add one additional arrow to your quiver right now. The following way of naming your character is great fun.
Say your character is a stickler and average Joe. Wouldn’t it be hilarious to name him right the opposite of what his obvious nature is? As if fate was playing a mean prank on him…?
The obvious mismatch between what the character is and how he is called will tickle your reader’s intuition, in an absurd and good way. It’s up to you whether you want to give your story a little absurd twist like this. Just make sure the gap is absolutely obvious.
Here are some additional hints on what to watch out for:
First Names for Characters
When you are looking for a first name for your character, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Think about his age, his social background, and the environment and culture he grew up in (Antonio Sanchez is a bad name for a Chinese guy).
Let me demonstrate:
Who is older?
Adele Roosevelt or Cassy Frimms?
Which one of these is working class, and which one is upper class?
Nigel Rupert Buddenhall or Jason Baker
We just associate certain names with a certain age or background. This can be because a name is old-fashioned and you know mostly old people with this name, or it could just be because a name sounds fancier than the next one. Again, association by word or by sound.
Put yourself in your character’s shoes and keep in mind where they are coming from.
Last Names for Characters
With last names, you can be really creative. Feel free to go crazy! I mean, if somebody’s ancestors were called Hugglemuggle 400 years ago, for sure it must have happened for a reason, right? So no false modesty.
Mind your genre though. You might want to err a bit on the crazier side if you write fantasy or science fiction, and hold back a bit if you write soap opera drama. Lord Foul the Despiser comes off much better in a fantasy story than on Wednesday afternoon TV.
Then, you also have to answer the question How realistic do you want the name to be?
How far do you want to go? The more realistic you keep the name, the better your reader can accept the illusion you prepared for her. On the other hand, lending characters crazy creative names can be quite fun, and the audience usually accepts these names quickly.
Think of Thomas Pynchon, who goes pretty far with character names like Bigfoot Bjornsen, Meatball Mulligan or Mucho Maas. A trick Pynchon employs is to use the character’s nickname as if it was his first name. Bigfoot Bjornsen’s real name is Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. That way even the craziest character names become realistic.
And speaking of tricks…
A number of cheap tricks are readily available for your character naming convenience. Sprinkle your character names with the following elements:
– Titles: Doctor, Professor, Sir, Bishop, Major…
– Descriptions assigned by people: “The old Johnson,” “One-eyed Jimmy, “Crocodile Jane”
– Alliterations: Harry Huffington, Carola Cransdale
– Simply add a middle name or initial: Joseph F. Wooldridge, Amy Nadine Drexler
Any of these options will add a small additional flavor to your character name.
Maybe everybody’s darlings deserve a special mention. You need a really good name for your most magnetic characters. You need…
Names for Villains
Evil characters are usually much more interesting than nice ones who play by the rules; everybody knows that. So how can you make sure your awesome super-villain gets a name as shimmering as he deserves…?
- Give Them a Sound of Doom and Gloom: Humbert Rottengrooll, Usur Moore, Otto Ergenhard… Listen to the mere sound of these names. Any heavy, deep, sharp, cold sound will do. U’s and especially O’s are really good for this. Yes, listen to the words ’doom and gloom,’ the letter O just sounds like ominous thunder (and no wonder the word ominous carries it twice…). R and T are sharp and hard letters; G and P also err on that side. As you might need more vowels, ‘I’ can have a shrill sound. In comparison, A and E are much friendlier and softer. Compose a name that sounds like upcoming calamity.
- German Names: What is it with German names for evil characters? Feels like half of the James Bond villains have German heritage. Well, Germany is considered the land of heavy and dark thinkers; director Fritz Lang, the band Rammstein, or philosophers like Nietzsche have added to that notion. And of course, in some way, audiences still connect that ‘weird-feeling’ language to Nazis. So nazi away with your German names: Hermann Goedlinger, Horst Braulacher, Leonore Struck…
- Make Them Sound Strange: Strange names for strange people. And your villains must certainly be the strangest people… Anything that sounds unusual or bent over backwards is a bonus: Bathur van Dorris, Gore McSummersdeath, Ju Nomoore
- Play on Associations with Terrible Things: Some words evoke terrible feelings and images in us; use them subtly, and hide them or parts of them in the name. What does the name Darth Vader carry with it, why does it sound so terrible? The close proximity to words like Dark, Invader or Death comes to mind. What’s so bad about the name Richard van Exer? I just invented that one. Besides sounding strange, it also reminds us of the word Execution. You wouldn’t want to suddenly find out the meaning of this name, when the guy is standing above you, would you…?
But now that you know what a good name is, where should you actually get that damn thing from?
Well, let’s take a look at how you can get inspired…
How to Come Up with a Character Name
It’s not easy to pull a name, any name, out of thin air. So it helps massively to have a list of names in front of you, in order to be able to pick one, like from the menu of your favorite restaurant. Those lists are easy to come by:
- Just google “last names list” or “first names list,” or something similar. These extensive lists are extremely helpful. I used them too while writing this article
- If you are the old-fashioned guy or gal, try a phone book: For sure, opening it on a random page and pointing to a spot blindly helped many authors back in the day
- Browse your friends’ Facebook pages (but don’t get lost on Facebook). Do they have some friends with inspiring names or nicknames?
- Credits at the end of movies are a rich source for a big pile of fresh names
- You can find “fiction name generators” online (just google the term). However, I’m not a big fan of them, as these names often sound like a random collection of letters. But you could use them to get inspired
Finally, if you play around long enough with your name, and you don’t give up, your brain will come up with something neat. Just trust your instincts… and if you really don’t like it, simply start all over again.
Character Names Kickstarter PDF
Get this PDF summary to always remind yourself of the basic rules for character name creation. It includes the basic points of this post, plus all of the character name examples you just read. They should inspire you to find your own names.
Download this for inspiration, plus to keep as a handy reminder on how to create your perfect character names:
By getting this PDF, and after reading this post, you are now equipped to do the…
Character Name Writing Prompts
Pick one of these characters, and create a name for him or her:
An old man who is in great shape, running marathons
A constantly stressed woman, running in circles between her job, kids and errands
A king who is a wise and just ruler over his land
A sweet and good fairy that grants nice kids three wishes
A young bro who has the IQ of a piece of cheese
A filthy rich woman, driving in her Porsche
A clerk who is paying meticulous attention to detail
A stand-up comedian
Once you find a good name (or several), post it in the comments! Don’t be shy!
Your character name should always allude to what your character is or what she stands for. You could use associations with words, or associations with sounds; just don’t name your character too directly with her trait.
With first names, keep in mind their age, environment, and social class. With last names, keep in mind your genre. Maybe sprinkle it with a title for a gimmick, and google name lists to get inspired.
After reading this post, you are now fully equipped to create character names that wow your readers’ socks off! Let your creativity loose! They will love your twisted ideas.
Creating character names is so much fun, once you actually know how to come up with good ones. And you can definitely do it now: You can create character names so memorable they will stick with your readers for the rest of their lives…
Images: Stork: Christine Wulf/Fotolia; Potato/Tomato/Carrot: zmiter/Fotolia; Santa Claus: studiostoks/Fotolia; Evil Cat: Denis/Fotolia;