Choosing Character Names: Fun, or a Total Nightmare?
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
Character names can be tricky fishes. Occasionally you’ll think you’ve got the perfect name for your protagonist, only to get halfway through a story and realise that the name no longer suits them. Names can be used to stunning effect, evoking images, sounds, and even themes. They can hold meaning, both hidden and obvious, or they can be so generic that they don’t stand out at all (if that's what you're going for).
But it’s a fine line between picking a name you want, picking a name that fits the character, and picking something that’s not going to jar or distract readers.
We’re often advised to avoid names that are too out there, absurd or overly complex, and just plain impossible to pronounce. But occasionally a story will call for it. A good example of this is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where you can find names like Zaphod Beeblebrox and Slartibartfast. And that’s OK, because it’s a space comedy whose ethos is the pointlessness of trying to make an impact in an unfathomable universe–absurd names are the least of these characters’ problems. The thing is, those names probably wouldn’t work so well in a contemporary romance or a period drama like Downton Abbey.
Although now I kinda wish there was a character in Downton Abbey called Slartibartfast...
And then there are names that try just a little too hard to make the character sound cool or edgy. If you’re writing an action thriller, calling your ex-marine protagonist Rock Stoneblast might draw more snickers than anything. Actually, a while back Sky compiled a list of 20 Mental Movie Monikers, worth checking out for the lols.
Sci-fi and fantasy fall victim to impossible character and place names more often than most other genres. This is where you get your L’kazyx’hiqxues from planet Xzerquee’h’ex (which is probably in the Pzzy’awxze’a galaxy). These monstrosities can be enough to make a reader quit early on. Also, when it comes to audiobooks, how is the poor narrator supposed to navigate through that kind of thing? There’s also the issue of people who read out loud to themselves or read stories to other people.
When I pick names for my characters, the first thing I do is check their meanings on Behind the Name, just to make sure I’m not making any unintentional faux pas. The nerd in me quite likes it when an author gets clever with name meanings. You never know, there might be a reader who looks it up and is surprised to find the meaning has a connection to the characters’ backstory, attitudes, etc.
You also need to be mindful of when your story is set and which names were popular at the time. Putting a Beyoncé in 17th Century rural England probably won’t fly with the history buffs.
There are tons of excellent sources for names, if you’re really stuck. With a little patience, you can generally find good stuff in the phone book, movie or TV show credits, even graveyards (creepy, I know, but sometimes you have to get creative!). And there are the online venues Baby Names, The Internet Surname Database, Random Name Generator, as well as Behind the Name (linked above). And a silly one, Name Generator Fun.
So how do you go about naming your characters? Do they walk into your head fully formed with a name, or do you begin with a name and build the character around it? Do you struggle to find fitting names for your characters? Have you encountered any memorable names from books/TV/movies that you want to share? I’d love to hear them!