How to Pick Character Names

Photo by Nighthawk Shoots on Unsplash

By Lana Christian

I get such a kick out of picking character names for my novels!

It’s like going on a treasure hunt. And when you find a name with a hidden meaning to it, you get to decide whether you’ll ever reveal that tidbit to your readership. It’s much like an easter egg in a book.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How do you pick character names? Does some formula or secret sauce exist?

Perhaps. It depends on what you need. So, to cover as many bases as possible, here are nine suggestions, including my personal favorite.

Friends and relatives?

Some people want to name a character after a relative or close friend. While that sounds endearing, the person may be offended if you use their name for a character they find unflattering. If they overidentify with your character in a way you don’t intend, that could seriously tax a friendship. Or ruin a family Christmas dinner. Personally, I steer clear of such potential potholes.

Try these suggestions instead.

1. Noodle with anagrams

Making a character’s name an anagram can be fun. In the 2013 movie Doonby, John Schneider is a mysterious drifter by that name. You don’t realize until the end of the movie that “Doonby” equals “Nobody.”

Another example: “Addely” looks like a variant of Adley, a girl’s name. But “Addely” unscrambled spells “Deadly.” Oooh.

2. Create a play on words

An example: “Kinder” is German for “children.” “Karen Kinder” can be a fictitious preschool teacher.

How far can you take a play on words? It depends on whether you want to create a character or a caricature. Either can be effective in the right setting. Just make sure you don’t create a caricature when you intend to create a character.

What do I mean by that? Take the movie Brother White. A blond, Caucasian assistant pastor from a California megachurch accidentally gets assigned to an impoverished black church in urban Atlanta. Pastor White is the only white person in his new parish. Character or caricature? Hmm …

3. Evoke an emotion

Some characters evoke emotions by the way their name sounds. Severus Snape’s sibilant name epitomized the cold, calculating way he sized up Harry Potter. If that wasn’t enough, the earliest version of the word “snape” meant “to nip, bite, pinch.” Snape constantly nipped at Harry with biting remarks, right?

Similarly, movies and books have so wired us to perceive rich people as snooty that we almost expect upper-class characters to have pretentious-sounding names like Ashton, Bentley, Elliston, or Sterling. (Reality: Forbes’ roll call of the richest people in America is rife with decidedly unpretentious names: Mark, Larry, Steve, Bill, Jim. But we’re talking about writing fiction, not reality.)

4. Walk a graveyard

Dwayne Smither, an author colleague on Twitter, strolls through cemeteries to score interesting names. Finding tombstones from the era you’re writing about ensures those names were in use during that time frame.

5. Dig through documents

Virtually any document can be a potential source for names.

  • Travel manifests
  • Immigration records
  • Family trees
  • Newspaper articles
  • Old yearbooks

6. Use a fake name generator.

Several websites exist for this, but the most comprehensive one I’ve found, Masterpiece Generator, goes beyond basics like gender/age/nationality to also ask for details including your character’s religious background, parents’ nationalities, whether the character is evil, good, or otherwise. (Sidebar: Other software apps exist for creating superhero, sci fi, or fantasy names.) All such sites have significant limitations, but they can be a starting point in character naming.

7. Combine names

Combining names is a way to ensure uniqueness and avert the potential problem of wrongly naming a real person. Jerry Jenkins used name-combining in Dead Sea Rising, which follows dual story lines of Abraham’s parents/his birth and a modern-day archaeologist trying to get permits for a dig in Saudi Arabia. One problem: the Bible lists Terah as Abraham’s father but is silent about his mother. (Midrashic legend says her name was Amathlai.) Jenkins blended two names that were in use around 2000 BC to create the name Belessunu for Abraham’s mother.

8. Mirror a person’s quality

You can name your character after a fictional or real person you admire for certain qualities. Say your character is adventurous and fearless, or her character arc leads her to become that way. You could name her Amelia—because Amelia Earhart embodies those traits.

9. Find character traits in word origins

This is my personal favorite way to pick character names. I find words’ original meanings that reflect a key attribute of my character. In my book about the Wise Men, each of their names means “wise” in their first language (Persian, Arabic, and Egyptian). To me, that’s more meaningful than their traditional names, which hark back to 8th-century suppositions. Another character in my Wise Men book is Nakal, which means “swindler” in Hebrew. When the Wise Men stop in Sussita for saddle repairs, their dealings with Nakal ultimately cost them much more than they could have imagined.

In all my books, every character name I choose carries a special meaning.

So where can you find these word origins?

My favorite places are

  • babynames.com
  • babynamespedia.com
  • babynameguide.com
  • behindthename.com

You can sort names by gender and nationality. Variant spellings and word origins are included. Both help trace names backward through time so you can find their meaning, first usage, and country of origin.

If you can’t find what you need on those sites, try typing a culture or country’s name into your search bar, followed by dot org. I found some ancient Turkish names this way. I typed “turkishculture.org” then clicked on “Lifestyles.” A subtopic within that menu selection included a list of Turkish names for people. NOTE: This doesn’t work for every nationality, but it’s worth a try if you come up empty-handed otherwise.

A similar strategy is to find a country’s equivalent to our Encyclopedia Britannica. For my book about the Wise Men, I spent many hours poring over the Encyclopaedia Iranica online.

Conclusion

You don’t have to make your character names reflect one of their key traits—but it’s so much fun to do! And you can parlay that as “insider information” to share with your mailing list or readership at large during your book launch!

*********************

You turn! Where do you find inspiration for your character names? Share your thoughts!


Lana Christian writes biblical and historical fiction. The first book in her biblical fiction series has garnered several ACFW awards. She in the throes of querying books in both genres. She’s convinced that hiking or chai tea can solve most problems—but she knows God can solve every problem. Find her on Chistianwriters.com; follow her on Twitter (@LanaCwrites) and at lanachristian.com/blog.


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: The Story of Joseph. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

4 thoughts on “How to Pick Character Names

  1. Great article Elizabeth. Useful information! I’ve started keeping an ongoing list of unusual names or just ones I come across that I like. My children often text me a name to add to the list.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Last summer I spent a day at the cemetery of the small Colorado town that is the location of my WIP. I took photos of headstones that fit the timeframe of 1900-1920. Elmer and Elizabeth. Reuben and Flora. Harvey and Margaret. Sam and Lavina. Antonita. Lenore. Jennie. And dear Claude whose stone read – So prone was he to find some good in mankind, so quick to stop and heed the cry of those in need, that heaven with love abrim did not seem strange to him.

    Liked by 1 person

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