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Character Names: How to come up with them?

Unbeknownst to many readers, writers can spend an inordinate amount of time devising names for characters and places. Some writers buy baby name books, some use friends’ names, some randomly open the phone book twice, once for the first name, once again to find a last name.

Merriam-Webster.com offers a subscription service that I use daily for general word meanings, but it’s invaluable for name research. Merriam-Webster.com offers brief history descriptions for each word, and there are some jewels in the actual etymology; Latin or Greek or even Sanskrit roots of modern words make great names for people and places. Encyclopedias and wikis can also help in the search. BehindTheName .com is a site I use as a reference to look up general meanings of first names and surnames after I have imagined a list of possible character names. I’ve also turned to psycholinguistic texts and, of all things, astrology.

A common piece of advice for writers is to make sure that all of the characters’ names each have a different first letter; this helps the reader avoid confusing the characters. When constructing names, I like to concentrate not only on hidden meanings, but also on their sound, their phonemes and general flow. My poetry instincts drive me to find a cast of character names that work nicely together when read on paper and read aloud.

Another consideration is the character’s general personality and the character’s plot arc in the story. A character who is abrupt and grumpy and is going to stay that way shouldn’t be named “Dulcie” (meaning sweet) unless a writer is attempting irony. A union worker shouldn’t be named “Striker” unless you want your readers to chuckle at you; even if Striker does go on strike at one point, it’s just too corny; such obvious naming mechanics should be saved for parables or nursery rhymes.

Luckily, most readers give your writing the benefit of the doubt, and are generous with the space they give to suspend their disbelief. Readers want to sink into your story. Most character names won’t disrupt their absorption of your storytelling, but adding that little bit of effort to find the perfect monikers will give your writing a bit more depth and layers for the curious reader to explore. And that, my friends, will keep them coming back for more.


As always, I invite comments and questions.