How to Choose the Perfect Names for Your Characters
Confession #1: I can’t start drafting a book until I’ve chosen the perfect names for my characters.
Confession #2: I don’t actually think this is such a bad thing.
Names are important to me—they’re not just decoration or a convenient way to remember who’s who—and I often find that a manuscript doesn’t “click” until I land upon the right names to populate it.
In fact, I personally believe that names are as intrinsic to story as plot or setting.
Why are names such a big deal?
Here are a handful of reasons:
Names Suggest Character
A name can speak volumes about a character without them having to open their mouth.
I mean this both in the sense that every name has a meaning, and in the sense that every name has a feeling associated with it.
Does your chosen name mean “strong in work” (Millicent), “unfortunate” (Mallory), or “from the sea” (Marina)? Does it feel posh (Algernon), nerdy (Alfred), or energetic (Aziza)?
Names Create Mood
The right names give your book the right mood.
Are the names in your book quirky? Your book will feel strange in the best way. Are they popular contemporary names? Your book will feel modern and realistic. Are they old-fashioned? Your book will be full of vintage charm.
The Land of Yesterday by K.A. Reynolds is a great example of this. Her characters all have incredibly beautiful and incredibly strange names. Mazarine. Aubergine. Celadon. Cecelia. These names have a musical quality that hints at the quirky poetry of the story they’re in.
Similarly, the names in Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland books are completely inventive and original—September, Ell, Saturday, Gleam—just like fairyland itself.
Names are a quick ticket to the heart of a world. Don’t skimp on them.
Names Can Be Easter Eggs
The meaning of a name can function as a hidden hint at the greatest secret in your novel.
My favourite example of this is Karou in Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. No spoilers here, but Karou’s name is integral to her unique role in the universe of the book, and that name is there from the beginning, waiting for us to look back and go, “Ohhhh!” I love that. It’s the most satisfying/frustrating feeling for a reader: to know that they stared a clue in the face for 247 pages and didn’t see it.
Names are World-Building
Names do not occur in a vacuum. They help to build a novel’s world.
For example, an important part of the worldbulding in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood are the names of the handmaids. Being called Offred or Ofglen serves to reinforce the idea that the handmaids are treated like property.
In The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, which is set in a fantasy kingdom based on Indian mythology, the names of the characters (Maya, Gauri, Amar) add to the richness of the book’s setting.
Now that we’ve chatted about why names are so important, let’s discuss how to go about finding the perfect name for a character:
Use Baby Name Websites
I have a book of baby names, and love paging through it, but I also frequently use Nameberry. Nameberry allows you to browse thousands of names and make your own (public or private) lists. You can also search for a name based on meaning, origin, or similarity to another name.
The world of names is your oyster!
Take a Name and Twist It
I did this in The Turnaway Girls. Most people know the name Delphine, a beautiful French girls’ name that means dolphin. I wanted to give my main character a name that meant dolphin because the sea plays an important role in the world of my book. But I didn’t want to call her Delphine, because it sounded too French. (Nothing against the French—my book just had nothing to do with France.) So I started playing around with sounds. And what I came up with was Delphernia. Delphernia Undersea. And the name stuck.
Use Words That Aren’t Names
I love using ordinary words (usually nouns and adjectives, but sometimes verbs) as names. My favourite way to come up with ideas is to scroll through my “Word of the Day” emails from Dictionary.com, because the words they include are usually obscure. Could Tether be a name? What about Cygnet? Or Panacea? Or Gunwale? Don’t be afraid to play around with this.
Start with Meaning and Work Backwards
Sometimes I like to start with meaning. The way I see it, there are two ways to execute this.
The first is that you can match the meaning of the character’s name to a quality you’d like them to embody. The second is that you can match the meaning of the character’s name to the opposite of who they are. Both are valuable and interesting for different reasons.
A good example of the latter is Flora Belle Buckman from Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. Her mother is a romance writer, and though Flora Belle cannot imagine anything worse than a romance novel, she has this utterly romantic name that means “beautiful flower.” This works because Flora & Ulysses is actually a sort of love story between a ten-year-old girl and a poetry-writing squirrel. (My heart!)
A good example of the former is Ava from The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. Ava is a human girl born with wings, and her name means “bird” in Latin.
A name is a poem, a hint, an insight. It can be a private joke the author has with herself or an indication of a character’s position in her world. It can tease, reveal, strengthen, shift, and scream.
Names are important.
Use them wisely. Play around with them. Most of all, choose a name that fits your character like a well-worn glove.
(Great, now I want to name one of my characters Glove.)
(For the record, I blame you.)
Hayley Chewins grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, in a house so full of books that she learnt to read by accident. Hayley studied classical voice for a year before switching to a degree in English Literature and Italian and holds an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a house full of art and music and colour, with her husband and a very small poodle. She believes in two things above all else: the magic of love, and the heroism of sisters. Her debut novel, a middle grade fantasy called The Turnaway Girls, will release from Candlewick and Walker Books in October 2018.
Header image artwork by Laura Hollingsworth.