Updated: Jul 8
Names contain power. There’s a reason that when we’re asked if we could change our name, the common response is that we wouldn’t. Your name becomes part of your identity, your social class, and even stereotype. There’s a perception associated with your name, and the same goes for the characters in your novel. We don’t just name people and towns. We name our stuffed animals, cars, and fighter jets. Names are an identifier allowing consistent communication.
When you're writing a book, or even just developing the plot, having the wrong name for a character can stop you dead in your tracks. You just feel that the name you're referring to them as isn’t right. And equally painful is scrolling through hundreds of baby name sites, page after page, Ariel to Zelda, hoping that the name your character needs will finally be in there.
I have a secret for you — It won’t.
The perfect name for your character isn’t found. It’s created.
Do you remember having a crush and being so head over heels for them but you didn’t know their name? And then you learned it and it was like, of course, how could their name have been anything else? Well, Stephen Sondheim knows all about that. Literally, dedicated an entire song to it in West Side Story.
“The most beautiful sound I ever heard
All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word
Say it loud and there's music playing
Say it soft and it's almost like praying”
That’s the sentiment we’re going for when readers meet your characters. And not just your protagonist. Secondary, supporting characters, and especially your antagonist all need names tailored to them.
Which means — You won’t find it on any baby naming site.
Here’s Why Baby Name Sites Won’t Help You
When a scientist discovers a new species, they have the honor of naming it. They’ll first try to see if the species fits into any current genus groups, but if it has features that are too distinct, it’s named in relation to the genus. The context of the species informs its name.
A really great example of this is actually from CW’s Supernatural. When the Winchesters come across a cross-breed of a monster that no hunter has seen before, Dean steps up to the plate and names them. And at quite an alarming speed.
Now, when watching the scene, it’s just a comedy bit. Oh, Dean. So stupid. So silly. But actually, Dean’s a genius. Jefferson Starship is a band from the 70s that used to be called Jefferson Airplane, and with Dean’s wealth of classic rock knowledge, he recognized that these people started as one thing and became another, just like the band.
Associations and meaning are the most important aspect of naming conventions. Scrolling through a list of names and glancing over their meaning from hundreds of years ago doesn’t provide the emphasis you need in context to your story.
The only way you’ll get that connection to the story is by creating it. If you have an idea of who your character is, it’ll make your job a whole lot easier. If you don’t know who your character is, fill out a character chart and write out their emotional arc, background, flaws, favorite drink, all that jazz. The more you know, the better. Knowing the attributes of your characters, and story, will inform their name.
So, push your keyboard aside and dust off the lab coat. You think you’re a writer? Wrong. You’re a scientist. You discovered the character, now you get to name them. Here’s how to create exclusive character names without baby name sites or name generators.
The Mechanics of Naming Characters
Now, I’m not a linguist. I wouldn’t even consider what I’m about to show you morphology, even if what we’re about to do is literally morphing words, but there are naming elements to be aware of when creating a new word.
The first rule of naming characters, and kingdoms and planets and literally any word in your fictional world, is that it has to be pronounceable. You’re totally free to name characters something along the lines of, “Xiij8kaqz.” If you do, just make sure your book has a pronunciation glossary included. Otherwise readers will refer to that character as Xii, which due to phonetics sounds like “Zee.” If that’s your goal, great. If it’s not, simplify the name. Keep it legible. Keep it readable.
With that in mind, if you’re creating a language or a standard naming convention, consider how the spelling of one name might influence another. Keep track of the sounds each combination of letters creates and how that affects the word as a whole. Sounds and spelling don’t have to be repetitive, but they do have to follow a set of rules. What those rules are is entirely up to you. This will help maintain consistency and open channels for an entire language to be created, if that’s the avenue you’re headed.
While phonology is the study of complex sounds and patterns, phonetics is the study of particular sounds. How a name sounds is equally important as to how it looks on the page and fits in the mouth.
Names that are said out loud and “pronounced with vocal cord vibration which often sound ‘harder’ such as ‘Gregory,’ ‘James,’ and ‘William’ are given more frequently to males.” That isn’t to say strong female characters can’t have hard names. In fact, it’s almost expected that they do. That’s totally up to you, your character, and what the story requires.
Names “pronounced without vocal cord vibration which often sound ‘softer’ and breathier such as ‘Heather,’ ‘Sarah,’ and ‘Tiffany’ are more frequently given to females.” With gender norms continually being challenged, consider assigning men softer names. If your story contains a male character with a quiet disposition, it would be safe to say that their name would match their personality and offer a gentler approach.
The sounds letters make when they come together to form a name is just as important as how they come together to create a visual identity. That visible signifier becomes part of the name and adds to its meaning to the character as a whole. I mean, the name will be stamped across the page hundreds of times so it had better be easy on the eyes, or pack a punch, or scare the daylights out of your readers—whatever it needs to do.
Strategies to Name Characters Without Name Generators
Now that we’ve established the elements of creating a name, here’s how you can put them to use and craft the perfect character name.
Dig Deep into the Research
With your character’s background and story arc in mind, jot down a list of key words or traits that come to mind. This list could look something like: stubborn, brown skin, introspective, and even reborn.
Next, take that list and look up the origins of those words. Where did they come from? How have they evolved over time? What connotations do they have? Do they come from a Latin or Greek root? What suffixes or prefixes are associated with them?
Type up some notes on your findings. If nothing has jumped out at you yet, don’t worry. Go back to your list of character attributes and add more features. For example, if this character has green eyes, add it, then research it.
A quick web search can offer all kinds of names for green shades and hues. Jot down the ones that stick out to you. You might not want to name your character Verde simply because they have green eyes, but it can be used as a starting off point.
Be sure to also look into a word’s translation. Consider how it sounds in another language and if there are certain sounds or visual choices that are fitting to the character. Researching colors, textures, and shapes in all their various forms of origin and translation can help inform the name creation process.
Shuffle Syllables and Sounds
Now that you have a thorough list of fragments, words, phrases, and visual styles, consider how the name should sound. Should it flow off the tongue in eloquent poetry? Or should it be harsh and guttural, using the back of the throat, and only one syllable like caveman grunts? The length of a name determines how long it sits on the tongue.
Consider the below list of names. You might recognize some of them, and whether you do or you don’t, what thoughts come to mind?
You’ll notice that recurring sounds occur between the Doctor and River, which is fitting for the romantic pair. Amy and Rory both have 2 syllable first names while their last names contrast drastically by 1 to 3, respectively. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson both have 2 O’s in their names, with the shape of the mouth making relatively similar sounds, connecting the pair as inseparable investigative partners.
Use syllables to add variety to your character name, and mix and match them with other character names to create a rich, diverse story world.
Repeat, Eliminate, and Add Letters
Remember that list we wrote down and researched the heck out of? Okay, now take the words, shapes, and sounds you have and rearrange them. Add prefixes and suffixes. Remove letters and add duplicates of the same letter side by side or place it later on in the name. Clip words in half and borrow the sounds you like. This is when the visual element of names kicks into overdrive to compose a unique identifier associated with the character.
Examples of names demonstrating various spelling, syllables, and sounds are as follows:
There are no hard and fast rules when developing a character name except that readers can pronounce it, not just you. And for the love of all that’s good, stop taking normal names and changing it into some bizarre spelling. Just rearranging the spelling of a name does not impart meaning unless the context of the name relates to plot or theme.
A Double-Edged Sword
Sometimes the perfect name for a character develops later. Like a rogue rebel that enjoys going off script, characters have personalities of their own. Don’t force them into a box. Rather, work with them and follow where their expressions of individuality lead.
If all else fails, at least give your characters a name that means something. Tying them to the theme of your book is the most ideal scenario, but tying it to setting is more realistic since that’s what people do in real life. Like my name. Morgan has Welsh origins, stemming from the name Morcant, which is a combination of two words: mor (sea) and cant (circle). It’s the same reason why mor, a body of water, relates to the word, moor, which is a boating dock.
There’s a trilobite fossil, a marine arthropod, named Han Solo. It was found in North China and is named Han as a reference to the Han Chinese which is the largest ethnic group in China. Solo refers to the species being the youngest fossil of that genus, suggesting that it was the last surviving member of that group. If you can use science to create art and art to influence science, you, my friend, have just leveled up your naming game.
What strategies do you use to create original character names? Let me know in the comments.