How to find a good name for your character
Why is it so difficult to find a fitting name for your character? One of your first thoughts might be to ask, but it’s tough when you need a name for a character and you hear things like “You can’t write if you can’t think of a name” or “Look it up.” While you’ll get help when name hunting, it’s easy to get backlash for being unable to think of one.
That’s okay. You’re not alone. Don’t take the backlash personally. Let it go, and let’s find a name for your character.
Why is it so hard to find a name?
Naming characters is like naming a child, almost. Yes, there’s a difference, but work with me here. Naming a character is an official label and stamp. Once you decide, that name will form an image in people’s minds that you hope matches your image.
That’s a tough decision.
Most writers struggle with that official stamp, and others struggle with finding one that simply fits the image they made for their character. The funny thing about naming something or someone is that you want the name to stick out. You want it to be set apart from every other name because your character is special. They have a unique life. They have something no one else has.
Or perhaps they don’t, but the former is typically the case.
So, how do you accomplish all those things through a name? How do you even find one?
Step One: who is your character?
You need to know who your character is, of course. If you’re struggling to find a name, try fleshing out your character. Some people need a name before they flesh them out, though. If that’s you, jump ahead to step two.
Answer a couple of basic questions:
- Male or female?This will split your problem down the middle with a few outliers hanging out in the line (unisex names). You can avoid all the Adams and Orics and anything else on the male end of the spectrum if your character is female. If your character doesn’t have a gender—perhaps you’re writing about a civilization that doesn’t procreate or something—you’ll knock out two ends of the spectrum and you’ll want to stick with names that can be either male or female. Why? It will fit your character better.
- What language do they speak?If your characters speak Spanish, you’re not likely to have a main character named Francois. If your characters speak an alien language with a bunch of apostrophes in it, you won’t be using a name like Joe. Watch yourself, here, though. I know you probably want a super unique name like Ma’lechu’kvana, but please don’t do that. Keep in mind that your readers are trying to read, and complicated character names will not help them do that. There’s nothing more frustrating to most readers than trying to pronounce something just so they can get through the book. If your characters speak a different language, or if you simply want a strange spelling of a normal name (as someone with a strange spelling variant of a normal name, I can speak to the pains of living this reality), be careful. If you want Kaylynn, fine. If you want Markas, fine. Don’t torment your readers with Viktoureiyah. At least, not unless you have an absolutely fantastic reason for doing so. Rant over.
Step Two: what sounds fit their personality?
This one is tricky because what sounds pleasant to me might not sound pleasant to everyone. I love the letter C and letter Y, especially if there’s an S-sound in there somewhere. Cynfra (Sin-fruh) is the name of one of the characters in my book, and her name is based on the meaning of a variant of her name. The spelling isn’t terribly easy to pronounce, but I tried to make that my only complicated one, the others being Widera and Elaine and Sam (Elaine and Sam are human).
Now, Cynfra, to me, is a strong yet gentle name. It flows off the lips with enough of a stab that I think readers can take her seriously, yet I can imagine the character as being compassionate or, in her case, fearful for others’ lives. It’s up to her to take control of her situation, so I need her name to be flexible with her.
Think of the sounds in that way. Go to a baby name website, look through your phone book, scroll through your friends list, etc. Read names, look for syllables that sound good to you, and think about why they do. Looking through existing names will always help, even if you only save a couple of syllables for consideration.
Step Three: check the time period
You might think this should be one of the first steps, and in some situations, it should, but not here. The reason for it is because not everyone works on our calendar, and doing the previous steps first will aid in narrowing the long list of names in this step.
If your book takes place in the future, you have a lot of freedom because name preferences change. You’ll notice, however, that spellings have changed in the past decade or more because people are trying to find uniqueness in the basic structures of existing names. Why? Don’t ask me. I’m a victim here. But, notice that my name (since I went there anyway) can be pronounced as Cay-see or Case or, somehow, it gets pronounced Cass-see. Because people will be trying to pronounce your variant, I suggest—though it’s up to you—making the spelling easy to read. It’s inevitable; if you take us one hundred years into the future, we just might see an Allehgrah or Alleeyaundrauh (I’ve already seen the latter spelling). You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to go to Alliandra if you don’t want to, but you can definitely make it easy for someone to pronounce so they’re not fighting their way through the book. Again, your choice, but my fix for that as a reader is to blur it. I see that super long name, and her name is A throughout the rest of the book. It ruins my initial thought of her, but at least I can read it without getting frustrated.
If your book takes place in the past, you’ll have to do a little digging. Look up the culture, the historic events occurring during that time (maybe a fallen city inspires a name to honor it), and look at some of the names in history that might have been popular at that time. You won’t likely see an Alleeyaundrauh in 1937, so I don’t suggest using it.
Step Four: ask people or just spit names out; don’t overthink the process
If you go through these three steps and still can’t find a name, pick several that you kind of liked and share it with a group of people. Tell them what you’re thinking, and tell them why those names just don’t fit but you can’t find one that does. That will give them ground to build on, and a short character description will take that one step further. Help them help you.
If anything, try repeating these steps. But walk away when you get frustrated. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of overthinking it. Names aren’t as hard to come up with as they seem. Throw names at a wall and wait for one to bounce back. Every name doesn’t have to have a hidden meaning, each spelling doesn’t have to make someone’s brain hurt . . . you don’t have to suffer the pain of name hunting.
Give it time, and leave a placeholder name there that you kind of like until you find the right one. Who knows? Maybe it’ll grow on you.
Write for yourself, but edit for your readers.
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