The Delicate Art of Naming Your Characters (or Children)

Okay, I admit it: I judge names. And I’m guessing you probably do, too.

When it comes to writing fiction, names are especially important. They set the tone of your character; they very subtly—or, sometimes, not-so-subtly—give the reader clues as to who your characters are. They can be ironic (e.g., naming a short, skinny character Bronwyn), or they can be fitting (e.g., naming a beautiful character Calista—a name that means “the pretty one”). Regardless, one thing is clear: Names do matter—whether or not we admit it. Is it fair that someone may judge you based on your name, something that someone else decided for you? No. Does it happen anyway? Fuck yeah. And this is why you need to be extra careful when it comes to naming your characters . . . and also, naming your kids. I implore you, please, please, please don’t be one of those obnoxious Millennial yuppies that names their kid something like “Yardwork” or “Sneuflake” or “Queensly Starlight.”

Of course, I guess I should say that sometimes, giving your character a stupid name is fitting. If your characters are bohemian hippie-dippie parents,“Yardwork” may seem an appropriate choice to bestow upon their offspring. If your characters are obnoxious, entitled, vapid fucks, “Sneuflake” may be a good choice for their child. And if your character’s a self-important new-age schmuck with too much money, “Queensly Starlight” sounds about right.

But, again: Do not name your actual children anything like this. Your characters and your children are not the same thing, no matter how it may seem to you. DON’T FUCK THIS UP.

But anyway, back to your characters.

Here are some tips to help make the delicate art of naming your darlings a little easier. Keep in mind while reading this that while some of the advice is applicable to child-naming, not all of it is. (And if you do, in fact, name your kid “Sneuflake,” I will definitely judge you.)

Tip #1: Don’t Be Too On-The-Nose

One thing I hate when reading a book is if the protagonist is, for example, a shape-shifter who can turn into a dragon, and just so happens to be named Dragonetta. By some miraculous coincidence. I don’t buy it—you hear me? Unless you can come up with a legitimate backstory for how Dragonetta’s parents knew she’d have the power to turn into a dragon, and why they decided to name her Dragonetta because of that fact, then I don’t want a protagonist to have this on-the-nose of a name. It makes no sense. Also, it’s fucking stupid. Next!

Tip #2: Not Every Name Has to Fit the Character Perfectly

Sometimes it’s interesting to have a character with an ill-matched name. It doesn’t have to be an ironic choice, just a name that, on surface level, seems like an odd choice—like by naming your tomboy character Daisy, or your hunky quarterback Norton. And seeing how the characters—and their friends/family/adversaries—respond to those mismatched names can help with development.

Tip #3: If You Want the Name to Match, Make It Subtle

Not every girly character has to be named Daffodil, Sunshine or Sweetums. Picking a name that subtly suits the character is key—and, if you really want that perfect tie-in to the character’s personality, you can always pick a name that has a well-suited meaning. Just maybe don’t pick a name that’s too ubiquitous—for example, everyone knows the meaning of the name “Belle” or “Bella,” so giving a character who’s super beautiful a name like that is still pretty obvious.

Tip #4: Not All Non-White People Have “Ethic” Names—And If They Do, That Doesn’t Mean Their Name is a Super Common One

This one’s probably the most egregious. I hate it when a white writer decides to give every non-white character the most common or well-known ethnic name they can think of—I guess because they can’t be bothered to do research? If I had a nickel for every Asian character I’ve seen named Mei, or Hispanic male character named Miguel . . .

The same rule applies to surnames—giving all your non-white characters ridiculously common and/or well-known ethnic surnames is eye-roll-inducing. Think of it this way: Not every white person is named John Smith or Jane Brown, right? So why would every non-white person be named the equivalent of that? That’s right: they wouldn’t! Do your research if you’re confused—it’s a Google search away, so it’s extremely easy, and it will make a huge difference.

Tip #5: Don’t Go Overboard on the Exotic Names

Let’s say your main character is named Roidney Atticus Wilderstock. And let’s say his best friend is named Abigailia Sorventuine. Unless there’s a legitimate reason for these characters having weird names (e.g., it takes place in the future and therefore all the characters must have some unusual or futuristic-sounding names), you should leave it at Abigaila and Roidney. Because in real, every-day, contemporary life, not everybody is named Loripetta or Josevio. So keep the bizarre names to a sensible, reasonable minimum.

Tip #6: Just Because Your Character is Special Doesn’t Mean They Have to Have a Special Name

Your badass warrior princess protagonist can still be a badass warrior princess with a more traditional name—like Carolyn or Helene or Lorraine.

Tip #7: Don’t Give Your Character a Version of Your Own Name

One thing that really grates on my nerves are Mary Sue protagonists. When a writer goes so far as to actually write themselves into the story, via a better, smarter, more attractive version of them in the lead role, it’s pretty much always nauseating. And it’s made worse when the writer actually gives their Mary Sue a variation on their own name. Sometimes, in fairness, there is a legitimate reason (e.g., the character is not actually based on you and you just happen to really like this variation), but if there’s no reason other than you wanting to write a cooler alter ego of yourself into your story, then don’t do it. I promise you it’s not nearly as adorable, endearing or crafty as you think it is.

Tip #8: The Names Should Suit the Era

This one should be obvious, but keep in mind that if you’re writing a story set during a different time period, giving your characters contemporary names would be a bit odd. Do your research. Make sure to pick names that were actually used during the era you’re writing about. That doesn’t mean you should necessarily pick the most common or well-known old-fashion names, though. There were plenty of others that were used back in the day that are less well-known and sadly forgotten, but could make the perfect, unique-by-contemporary-standards name for your character.

Tip #9: Remember That “Natasha” Spelled Backwards is “Ah Satan”

Just something to keep in mind before using it.

Tip #10: Not Every Character Needs a Name

Having too many characters and too many names can confuse the reader. Unless they play a pivotal role in the story, you don’t necessarily need to name every character that comes on the scene. Sometimes it makes sense not to—like if your character has a short interaction with a waitress at a coffee shop, do we really need to know that the waitress’s name is Flo? (Also, side note: Not every waitress is named Flo. Just Progressive Insurance spokeswomen.) It’s also a legitimate stylistic choice to leave out the names of even pivotal characters—though it can be tricky to pull off. Point is, whether to include certain names or not is up to you, and not something you have to do just because everyone else does. De-cluttering your story by removing excess details—like unnecessary names—can actually make a world of difference.

I hope you enjoyed these tips—and I deeply hope that you keep them in mind the next time you’re struggling to come up with a name for a character. (Just remember to credit me if you end up getting published, because you better believe good names go a long way toward achieving success.)