How to Name Your Characters: Tips for Choosing Character Names

brainstorming character creation
How to Name Your Characters: Tips for Choosing Character Names

Jane Eyre. Huckleberry Finn. Jay Gatsby. Sherlock Holmes. What do these characters have in common? In addition to being some of the most famous characters in English literature, they all have unique— and memorable— names.

In fiction, a character’s name carries significant weight, often shaping readers' perceptions and contributing to the character's identity and legacy. A well-chosen name leaves a lasting impression that endures long after the story is finished.

If creating your main character's name feels daunting to you, don't worry! With some careful thought and consideration, you can create the perfect name for your characters. In this post, we’ll share our tips that will help you do just that.

Why does it matter what you name your characters?

The name is often the first piece of information readers get about a character. It sets the tone and can provide an immediate sense of the character's personality, background, or role in the story. A name like "Atticus Finch" suggests a character who is dignified and morally upright, while "Hannibal Lecter" hints at something more sinister.

The name you choose for your protagonist can also be used to draw comparisons to other works of fiction. For example, in his novel Purity, author Jonathan Franzen gives his heroine the nickname "Pip"— a clear reference to the famous character Pip in Charles Dickens's classic novel Great Expectations. In doing so, Franzen is telling the reader that his Pip's character arc will be similar to that of her namesake.

Tips for creating memorable names for your characters

While your first stop when naming your cast of characters may be a character name generator or a book of baby names, for a truly memorable character, try to come up with names that say something meaningful. Here's how to get started creating unique names:

Choose a character name that reflects their personality

One option is to use a name that reflects your characters’ unique personalities. If you want to draw attention to specific personality traits, choose names that reflect those traits.

For example, Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol perfectly reflects the character's initial cold-hearted and greedy nature. The name "Scrooge" has gone on to become synonymous with miserliness and a lack of generosity. In contrast, Holly Golightly from Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's reflects Holly's carefree and light-hearted demeanor. The last name "Golightly"  also mirrors her tendency to drift from place to place without settling down.

Represent your characters' backgrounds and roles in the story

If a character’s background is an important part of their identity, their name should reflect that. Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, which begins in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea, tells the tale of the female divers (haenyo) of Jeju Island. The names See chose for her two main characters reflect their unique cultural ethnicity. Mi-Ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator while Young-sook is a woman born into a long line of haenyo and will inherit her own mother’s position in leading the divers.

In Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, the protagonist's name, Amir, reflects his Afghan heritage, which is central to the novel's setting and themes. Similarly, the name "Scout Finch" in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird evokes a sense of curiosity and innocence, aligning with the character's role and perspective.

Choose character names that are appropriate for your story's world

Another option for naming characters is to choose names that are appropriate for the world in which your character lives. An excellent example of this is the names found in The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. Katniss Everdeen and her sister, Primrose, live in the poorest part of District Twelve and are named after plants, while rich characters living in the Capitol have names suggesting opulence and authority, such as Caesar Flickerman and Coriolanus Snow. In the dystopian world that Collins has created, these names indicate a clear divide between the oppressors and the oppressed.

There are other ways that names might represent the world in which your characters live, such as in historical fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi. Below are examples of each.

Character names in historical fiction

If you're writing historical fiction, names can serve as linguistic signposts that guide the reader through different historical periods and settings. For example, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is set in Mississippi in 1962 and includes names like Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny Jackson. These names help place the reader firmly in the 1960s-era Mississippi. Similarly, in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the names Liesel Meminger, Max Vandenburg, and Hans Hubermann are characteristic of German names from the early to mid-20th century. These names contribute to the authenticity of the novel's setting and help to ground the reader in the historical context.

Character names in sci-fi and fantasy

If your story involves world-building, as is often the case in science fiction or fantasy novels, your characters' names need to be as unique as the worlds in which they live. Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses features names such as Feyre Archeron, Tamlin, and Rhysand that add to the reader's immersion in the fantasy world these characters inhabit. When crafting your own fantasy worlds, be sure to create character names that are as unique as the worlds in which they live. However, ensure your characters' names are still relatively easy to pronounce, or provide a pronunciation guide for your readers so they don't get frustrated!

Choose meaningful names that fit the character's arc

Sometimes, the most interesting names are the ones with a story. In John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Alaska Young explains the story behind her name, revealing her family dynamics and her desire to be "big" and far away from her hometown:

She smiled with the right side of her mouth. “Well, later, I found out what it means. It’s from the Aleut word, Aleyska. It means ‘that which the sea breaks against,’ and I love that. But at the time, I just saw Alaska up there. And it was so big, just like I wanted to be. And it was so damn far away from Vine Station, Alabama, just like I wanted to be.”

Similarly, in Leigh Bardugo's fantasy Six of Crows, POV character Kaz Brekker reveals how he changed his name after nearly dying as a young boy:

He still went by Kaz, as he always had, but he stole the name Brekker off a piece of machinery he'd seen on the docks. Rietvald, his family name, was abandoned, cut away like a rotten limb.

Kaz's "stealing" a new name and "cutting away" his old last name fits perfectly both with the character's personality and the events surrounding his traumatic rebirth.

You’re ready to create the perfect names for characters!

You now have many tools in your writing toolbox to help you create the perfect names for your characters. Whether it’s reflecting their personalities, showcasing their cultural backgrounds, fitting the historical or fantastical world they inhabit, or telling a unique story, thoughtful naming can enhance your narrative. Which tip will inspire you in naming your characters?

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