Choosing Character Names

Updated: Apr 13

QUESTION: What’s in a Character Name?

ANSWER: A Lot!


By Michael Heath / selfpublishingUS.com

So, who is going to illustrate your children’s book?

Choosing character names for a novel can be both heart wrenching and fun. I believe that naming the people in a story brings the writer closer to the character’s personality, and doing it correctly brings the reader closer, too. Unless there is a convincing backstory to explain why you are using a name that seems a bit illogical, it is critical to use a label that fits. Here are some rules that authors use:


  • Consider the ethnicity of the person. For a British character you may use Arthur, Nigel or Beatrice. If the person in your story is Middle Eastern, try names like Murad, Yasuf or Tirsa

  • Learn the meaning of the names you may use. Michael and Gabriel have strength connotations. Godfrey and Olive are associated with peacemaking

  • Avoid famous names that can be distracting, like Elvis, Beyoncé, Cher and Adolf

  • Be careful when adding nicknames to your characters since it is one more name your readers will have to follow

  • Ask friends about the names you are considering and see what they believe the names portray

  • Don’t use names that are difficult to pronounce, which could be a hardship to your reader

  • Avoid similar-sounding names (e.g., Jessica, Jennifer) that can confuse the reader

  • Siblings should have same name styles. Use all traditional names or all unusual names in a family, as it would not be typical for parents to mix the styles

  • Think of the genre in which you are writing. A war story would likely have grittier names like Sarge, Captain, Kelsey, Hogan and Seawright. A romance novel would have more flowery names such as Angel, Chloe or Lorenzo. More imagination may be required in a science-fiction novel since you need to come up with futuristic names. Try something that sounds alien, like Donica, Echo, Oceana or Kael

  • The name should relate to the period in which the book is written. The name Ethel may have been popular in the 1940s but not so much now. Go to https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/ and scroll down Popular Names by Birth. Find out what names were most commonly given to babies when your character was born. That can be a helpful guide


Following these recommendations should help take some of the anxiety out of the naming process. Use baby name books and online generators to get the creative juices flowing. I went to the Social Security website to see the most popular names given to newborns in 1961, the year I was born. My parents must have been following a trend, since the number one male name that year was Michael.


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