Picking perfect names for key characters in a novel or screenplay can be challenging. However, we have five tips for coming up with excellent character names:
Choose names that fit your characters’ backgrounds and personalities.
Think about any common naming conventions in your chosen genre.
Consider the etymology of names to give them an extra layer of meaning.
Avoid giving different characters names that are too similar.
Look to historical figures, other fictional characters, and online tools for inspiration.
Read on for more advice on how to come up with great character names.
1. Choose Names That Fit Key Characters
A good character name will fit both the setting of the story and the character being named, reflecting their background and personality. This might mean considering:
Setting and time period – Ideally, you should pick names that are plausible for the time, location, and culture that your story is set in, especially for realistic fiction. For example, in a historical novel, you should use names that were common during that time period.
Character background – Think about each character’s background, including their social class, ethnicity, gender, and anything else that might affect their name. Think about which names characters like yours would have in real life.
Character personality – You might also want to pick names that reflect your characters’ personalities. For a clichéd example, you might call an optimistic character “Hope.” Or you might choose names based on their sounds (e.g., using a name that sounds harsh or intimidating for a villainous character).
You don’t have to pick names that fit your characters in every way, of course! You might even want to deliberately subvert expectations based on a character’s background if that is part of their personality (e.g., if they’ve rejected their origins and taken on a pseudonym). But it is worth at least thinking about settings and character backgrounds when choosing names.
2. Think About Genre
As with the setting and characters’ backgrounds, you might need to think about naming conventions in your chosen genre when picking character names.
For example, sci-fi and fantasy stories will usually have unusual sounding character names to reflect their exotic settings. It might sound weird if you call your adventurous space pirate captain Eric Smith, after all, since it sounds a little earthly and mundane!
Likewise, in children’s fiction and comedic writing, rhyming (e.g., Clark the Shark) and alliterative (e.g., Captain Carrot) names are common. So you may want to think about how the sound of your character names fits the tone and voice of your writing.
3. Pick Names Based on Etymology
Many authors pick names based, in part, on etymology. In other words, they will pick character names with origins that reflect the character somehow.
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For example, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games was named after the katniss plant, also known as the “arrowhead” plant, to reflect her archery skills. And the “Severus” from Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books comes from a Latin word meaning “harsh.”
When picking a name, then, you can start by selecting a few terms that describe the character, then looking up their origins using an etymological dictionary. This might give you some unusual ideas for names with an extra layer of hidden meaning!
4. Avoid Using Similar Names for Different Characters
The names you pick should help readers tell key characters apart. As such, you’ll want to make sure the names of the main characters in your writing are not too similar. Look out for:
Length – Varying the length of character names will help make them more distinctive. Having too many names of a similar length can be confusing.
Sound and spelling – Having too many names that start with the same letter, especially names that also sound or look similar (e.g., Audrey and Aubrey), will be confusing. Try to vary names on this basis for your key characters.
Of course, there may be reasons to use two similar names sometimes. Perhaps you have a pair of twins that do everything together, so you decide to call them “Tim” and “Tom” to reflect their similarity. That’s fine! But if you want readers to be able to tell characters apart quickly and easily, it is a good idea to use names that look and sound distinct.
5. Look Elsewhere for Inspiration
When looking for inspiration for character names, you can try:
Picking a name inspired by a celebrity or historical figure, especially if they reflect some quality of your character. For example, Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World is full of historically inspired names, such as Darwin Bonaparte, whose name combines the last names of Charles Darwin and Napoleon Bonarparte.
Using names of people you know, such as friends and family members. You might want to make sure they’re okay with this first, though!
Picking names from a telephone directory or book of baby names.
Picking names influenced by other fictional characters. Returning to Katniss from The Hunger Games, for example, the last name “Everdeen” was inspired by Bathsheba Everdene from Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.
It’s best not to copy an existing name directly, though! Calling your villain “Darth Vader,” for instance, could suggest a lack of originality. And using names that are already heavily associated with another character can be distracting, so exercising caution and thoughtfulness is wise.
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