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Notes, tutorials, exercises, thoughts, workshops and resources about writing or storytelling art

How to Name Your Characters

In many cultures, it is believed that a person’s name contains his/her essence. From a practical viewpoint, this may sound like an exaggeration, but it makes sense when we are talking about fictional names. For example, how different would it have turned out if Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes had been called Sherrinford Holmes as the author had originally planned?

How to pick names for fictional characters

Every name has different connotations for each of us because they remind us of different people; thus, it’s impossible to foresee the effect names will have on your readers. Nevertheless, here are some steps you can take to find names that best suit your characters:

1. Choose meaningful names.

Don’t choose a name just because it looks nice to you or because it was the name of your high school girlfriend. Give the name meaning, and your story will gain complexity. A dictionary of names can come in handy when it comes to baptizing (i.e. naming) your characters. You can find both digital as well as paper versions, and many of them explain each name’s origin and meaning.

2. Don’t rule out a name for its simplicity.

The fact that your characters’ names have meaning doesn’t imply they must be bizarre. Don’t discard a name for being too common. “Mary” and “John” are quite ordinary, but you can use them to highlight a character’s dullness.

3. Names are not obligatory.

Not all of the characters in your story must have a name. They can be identified by a nickname (such as “Maga” in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch), by an external feature (like “one-eyed,” “old fellow,” “girl in the pink suit”), and/or by their job, etc.

4. Keep it simple.

Avoid long and complicated names – especially if there are many characters in your story, and try to always refer to a character in the same way. For example, if Henry is usually called “the one-eyed person,” but he also appears as “Harry” or as “Owen” (his family name). In the end, it will be difficult to know who the writer is talking about.

In the novel Crime and Punishment, every character has many different names (Rodion is also called Rodka, Rodia, Romanovich, and Raskolnikov). While reading the book, I had to make a concentrated effort to know who was who, so I finally decided to assign a letter to each of them. In this way, I translated Rodion, Rodka, or Rodia, etc. as simply “R”.

Nevertheless, unless you are Dostoyevsky, I recommend you not confuse your readers that much. If you take such a risk, they will quit reading and save their time for a different author!

5. Avoid similar names.

If you want your readers to remember who you’re talking about, avoid giving similar names to minor characters. In my novel Santa Matriusca, Fermin, and Felipe were two characters whose names I mixed up. They had nothing to do with each other, but those who read my first draft also tended to confuse them. Therefore, I renamed one of them, and the problem was solved.

6. Think holistically.

Casting directors usually look for chemistry between actors. Your characters’ names should also match each other. In fact, they can even have related meanings. In the film Sex and Lucia by the Spanish director Julio Medem, there are symbols that refer to light, to the Sun, and to the Moon. The protagonists’ names – Lucia (means light in Latin), Lorenzo (Spanish colloquial for the sun), and Luna (meaning moon) – revolve around the same idea and interact as a whole.

7. Be coherent.

Names should be consistent with the characters’ circumstances, age, history (names change over time), country of origin, social stratum, parents’ ideology, etc. Think about your own name. It was conditioned by many different circumstances. If you maintain a certain logic in the names you choose, your story will be more credible.

6 comentarios

  1. Each point you made held true. It is sometimes difficult to choose names for characters, but I find that if I use your suggestions it easier when I worte my next story after studying your blog. Thanks for the tip. I will return for more ideas to make writing easier.

    Escrito el 6 November 2014 a las 13:20
  2. 2. Literautas dice:

    Thank you for the comment, Ginger. I’m glad you like the post. 🙂

    Escrito el 25 April 2016 a las 07:48
  3. 3. Debbyanne Southwell dice:

    I am using a simple name for a character and it suits the character but is a well known name.

    Escrito el 1 July 2016 a las 12:46
    • 4. Literautas dice:

      Hi Debbyanne

      Sometimes a simple and well known name may work too. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment.

      Escrito el 6 July 2016 a las 08:36
  4. 5. Ilya dice:

    Thank you very much for the article. Now I can see what I was doing wrong and why my characters’ names sometimes sounded silly.

    By the way, in Dostoyevsky’s defense, Russian tend to change the forms of their names. (For example, if a guy’s name is Alexander, his mother or girlfriend would probably call him “Sasha” or “Sashenka” but his friends would call him “Sanya”, “Sashka” or even “Shurik”)

    Escrito el 24 July 2016 a las 18:06
  5. 6. Holly Hollar dice:

    I have noticed lately that several “B” movies, and novels for that matter, seemed unrealistic with stilted, unbelievable conversations because characters’ names AND word choices are inappropriate for the time period. I.e. Book or movie set in 2015, with a teenaged girl named “Susie”,”Sue”, your ubiquitous, “Mary”, or a young boy named “George” or “Albert”, Alan, etc. When writing dialogue, no average 21st century English-speaking American, except for possibly someone in their eighties, speaks with no contractions, or uses expressions such as “peachy-keen”, “my stars”, “golly”, and so on. We recently watched a movie that seemed like the dialogue was written by a 90 year old, or someone to whom English was a second language. It could have been a decent movie, but when dialog does not fit the setting and characters, it makes the actors seem worse than they actually are. The same is true of many self-published books, that are either unedited or edited by “a friend”. Another pet-peeve and also a sad fact is that writers many times have no idea of the correct usage of contractions and possessive forms, especially using the “apostrophe s”, the difference in usage of “their”, “there” and “they’re”, etc. I could go on forever with those. Our schools and of higher learning are letting our children down in the grammar department.

    Escrito el 29 July 2016 a las 20:02

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