By Emmanuel Nataf
It’s the new year and you’re ready to actually carry out your resolution of writing a book. You’re excited and sitting down to put down the first word when you stop short — because you’ve realized that you’re missing one of the most basic ingredients of all: a name for your character.
Though it might seem like a given, a name is actually one of the most important first steps that a writer carries out in the first phases of planning. A name is important because it can:
- Immediately reveal an aspect of a character’s personality, and
- Make your character iconic in your readers’ minds.
So where can you go about finding that elusive name that just “sounds right”? Instead of calling your character BEST FRIEND A or [MINOR CHARACTER 1] in your draft, this post has five methods below for you.
1. Read Newspapers, Phone Directories, And School Yearbooks
Sometimes the best names are right in front of us.
And I mean that literally! Be on the alert whenever you’re outside. You never know, a name that pops up in a neighboring conversation might catch your ear as you’re walking down the street. As Mad-Eye Moody (another great name in and of itself) said: “Constant vigilance!”
Everyday reading material might also prove to be stalwart resources when it comes to character names. Phone directories are old-school these days in society, but you can’t argue that it contains a goldmine of diverse names. School yearbooks and newspapers might also be a good resource to peruse for names. (Sir Arthur Conan Holmes was about to name his famous detective Sherrinford Holmes when he stumbled upon the name Sherlock in The Portsmouth Evening News and The Times newspapers.)
Indeed, J.K. Rowling once cheekily recommended visiting graveyards to get some proper inspiration for character names. While you may not necessarily want to go to such lengths, it’s a good reminder to keep your ears and eyes peeled at all times for the right name for your character.
2. Pick A Theme And Run With It
Just as themes and motifs in novels tie the work of literature together, picking names for your characters based on a theme might be the answer to all of your naming worries.
This method isn’t completely foreign. Let’s cut to Hunger Games: it’s not a coincidence that Katniss and Primrose are names that both originate from wild plants.
Then there’s Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey from 50 Shades of Grey: both of which are quite monochromatic names. J.K. Rowling also made plentiful use of this method, basing Petunia Dursley, Lily Potter, Pansy Parkinson, and Lavender Brown on a not-so-subtle theme of flowers.
The symbolism must make sense in order for the theme to click, of course. (The katniss plant, for instance, is hardy and also known as “arrowhead,” which may be a sly wink to Katniss’ skill when it comes to a bow and arrow.) That said, a theme will undeniably narrow down the spectrum of names available, which will go a long way towards helping you pinpoint the perfect moniker.
3. Use A Character Name Generator
Or if you’ve just drunk a lot of eggnog and are collapsed on your couch, feeling a little lazy (which is definitely understandable in the new year), you may want to consider a character name generator. This is exactly just what it sounds like: a tool that creates names for you. Generally, a name generator can house hundreds of thousands of naming permutations. All it takes is one click of your mouse — and voilà! You’ll get a list of interesting monikers for your character.
Great, now where can I find these elusive things? Luckily, the Internet is more than happy to be oblige, whether you’re looking for specific fantasy name generators or character-specific name generators. Our team at Reedsy has created an all-purpose character name generator that can generate more than two million names. You can filter through the names by selecting a country, archetype, and gender. Every click of your mouse will then spit out a first name, surname—along with the meaning behind the given name.
Speaking of which…
4. Run With The Etymology Using The OED And Baby Naming Websites
If you’d like your name to have a bit more meaning, can we also suggest baby naming websites? It might seem juvenile at first, but it’s actually more apt than you think: naming a baby isn’t that different from naming a character, after all.
In much the same way that parents would like to encourage their children to live up to their carefully-chosen names, authors can spend hours crafting a name that strongly suggests the personality behind the façade.
You probably won’t want to name your protagonist something that sounds or means something very villain-y, for instance—Scar, or Hades, which means the God of the Underworld. Instead, you’ll want to give him a name that means “light” or, perhaps, “leader.”
Which brings me back to my original point: baby naming websites are great for this purpose. Consider BabyNames.com, babycenter.com, or bounty.com. The OED will also fulfill the same purpose, although it’s not built specifically as a naming database as the other baby name sites are.
5. Create A New Language
If you really are committed to creating original monikers for your characters, you can create an entirely new language.
This method is particularly popular in fantasy novels. (J.R.R. Tolkien, anyone?) It adds a creative dimension and widens your power over the name considerably, for, in this case, you’re creating both the compound and the meaning of the compound. In Tolkien’s Elvish language, Sindarin, for instance, the name Alfirin means immortal, with “al-“ being the negative prefix and “firin“ meaning mortal.
However you end up settling on a name for your character, just remember that there’s no right answer: this isn’t a multiple choice test that you’ll either fail or pass. Even better, your audience will never know the number of names that you recycled in order to get to the right one! So keep calm and press forward with the name-choosing so that you can get quicker to the part that actually matters: the act of writing your book and bringing your character to life.
Emmanuel Nataf is the founder and CEO of Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers and marketers. Emmanuel dedicates much of his time to building Reedsy’s product and is interested in how technology can transform cultural industries.