Character names (and links)

If you've been researching agents and publishing houses long enough, you know that July is generally a down month - in fact, many agents are closed to submissions in order to catch up, go on vacation, etc. So it's a perfect time to start a new WIP, right??!! But first you need some characters...

Recently I read a couple of blog posts about naming characters. One blogger admitted that when she reread an old ms, she realized two of her current WIPs characters had the same names (and she didn't remember it!). Another one said that they visualized their character first and then attributed the proper name.

Christy and I have both been teachers for quite a while, so we have access to LOTs of current and trendy names (over the past 10+ years). The problem is, though, sometimes we have certain attributes to those names. Like all the [insert name here]'s we've ever had have been brats. Or our favorite student was [insert name here] and we wouldn't want their mom to think we've named a mean/morally questionable/teenage character after their prescious daughter/son. So, there's goods and bads with being privy to a lot of names.

My current WIPs main character is Kaleb. It's a name I liked and as soon as I came up with the premise of the book, I knew that was his name. I never even remembered that several years ago, I had a preschooler with that same name and spelling until this summer when he was on my son's baseball team (they're not in the same grade). Now, he is a kid I really liked and still do, but I didn't name my character after him. So I'm leaving it for now. (we live in a teensy-tiny town, so if I get published, yes, people will know he's the only kid with that name/spelling around and that yes, I do know him). But I do have a secondary character named Jed - I don't know any Jed's, I don't know if I'll ever know any Jed's, and it's an odd name for this area (maybe every area), but it's not my fault that's what his parents named him and that's his name.

So, I started thinking, why do our characters have certain names? Other than they pop in our head or remind us of someone? I came up with a checklist - feel free to use it if you need some backstory (like I do with Jed, even though it won't go in the book) or if you find yourself recycling the same names and need some new ones.

Where is your story set and what are the popular names in the area and for the year? Mine are set where and when I live, so that's easy. But for the most popular names by state and year, the Social Security Administration is here to help. Click here for help. (and yes, for the place and year I was born, Jason and Jennifer were the most popular. Erica was #83 and there were 72 of us that year! Cool, huh?) A little warning here - you might not want to use the most popular current names - suddenly there's 50 books being submitted to agents all with the same mc and you want yours to stand out!

Does your character have a trait that you want to capitalize on? You could find a name that means something important to your character or story line at this link. For example, a character dying of cancer could have a name meaning "warrior" - no one needs to know it but you, but it perfectly fits the struggle your character faces.

Can your readers identify with and pronounce the names? I think this one is especially important in fantasy - sometimes I have real difficulty keeping the names apart because I'm not sure of the pronunciation. But it can also be in contemporary if it's a strange spelling and it catches my eye for page after page after page. Also I once crit'd an ms with an unusual character name and several times the author herself misspelled it, yikes!

Will your readers be able to keep track of the different characters. Don't have too many similar names - if your YA book set at a high school featuring a group of friends all named Kerry, Karissa, Kiersten, and Kristen, you better give them enough personality traits that we can tell them apart! (it works in funny 80s and 90s teen movies, not in books) click here for more explanation of this trap

How do you feel about nicknames? If your mc has a longer name, their close friends and family will probably give them a nickname - at the very least shortening Jacob to Jake. Or they could have an entirely different nickname - like shortening (longening?) Jacob to Jellybean. Think how the name can influence the nickname.

Does the name reflect their inner character? If you have a down-to-earth, rural, intellectual, very serious character named "Jewel", you'd better be prepared to answer why! (not that anyone named Jewel is not those things, it's just a stigma a lot of readers would have about unusual names and as the writer, you need to convince them why it works)

Here are a few miscellaneous links regarding character names:

Some ideas from Jody Hedlund (I swear I didn't copy this blog post - I found it after I wrote everything above!)

A printable worksheet to keep track of your characters

Another good checklist (that I swear I didn't copy and just found! I especially like the tip at the end about not constantly switching between different nicknames)

Let us know if there's any good tips or links you have in the comments. And don't forget to get WIPing!


  1. I've been asked this before and I don't know where most of the names of my characters come from. But for my current wip, which is set in late 19th century Paris, I needed French names, obviously. But I also needed names that would have been used by a Jewish family in Paris at that time. So that was fun research! I have pages and pages of notes with all the names highlighted in various colors (also street names and neighborhoods so I could get an idea of where my MC might hang out).

    I love the name Kaleb, btw! Can't wait to read about him.

  2. Sometimes I think as writers we spend too much time worrying about names, but you just made it awesome again.

  3. Hehehe I love names. Sigh... Some names just stick with me from people I meet and movies I saw or books I read. Others, just occur to me.

    I pick names based on how well they fit the character and so far there's only one minor character in Doorways that might be renamed, because I gave her a filler name.


  4. My main character's name just came out of nowhere, but the other names came after doing a bit of research. I looked up popular names from previous decades for parents. The mc's love interest is French-Canadian, so I looked up last names and popular names from previous decades for his family. Less important characters I just named using whatever name popped into my head at the time I first created them. My mc's last name came from a sign I saw in my town. (Incidentally I also named my first child after a street sign.) :0) Christy

  5. Writer's Digest has a naming resource specifically for writers. It breaks down by historical and ethnicity. I like it a lot.

  6. Oh, a character's name is such a big deal! I made the choice to change one of my mc's names, and I'm so glad it did. I didn't think it through enough in the first place. Thanks for these links!

  7. These are excellent tips, I love them! I put a lot of thought into a character's name. Usually I delve into their ancestry and pick a name that comes from there.

  8. I know my characters before I know their names. I tried it the other way round just lately and couldn't get the character to work.
    The worksheet on that second link is awesome; very handy.

  9. Hilarious. I stumbled along with character names for my first manuscript. And then, I read this blog about "doing name research" and I changed a lot of them, but then some people had read one name, and some another and I kept telling different people different names. Complete mess. Thank goodness I'm trunking that one!

  10. I love naming characters! I have a minor one named Jed, too!

    Thanks for the tips. I often use the websites where you can search on name meanings and see what names come up. It's cool!

  11. Such great stuff here! Thanks for the tips. I'll have to bookmark this...

  12. Name research. One of my favorite things to do to avoid writing. Even with all my searching, the names I have used so far have just appeared in my head with the character. They tend to stick too. You pointed out some places I hadn't thought about though. Good post!

  13. My character names are usually more or less related to the culture I'm setting the story in. If I'm not sure about using the right name I do some research. There is nothing more aggravating than using the wrong cultural name for the wrong gender. so I try not to shoot myself in the foot. :)

  14. I get a lot of mileage out of online name databases and baby books, but I tend to change names before I'm through just to make sure the name fits. Also, Jed is the president's nickname on The West Wing. Just letting you know in case you suddenly decide to become a WingNut. ;)

  15. I enjoy the whole naming process and usually try and research something meaningful rather than having a name pop into my head.

    Unfortunately sometimes when you've found a beautiful and unusual name for a lead male character some goon at a car company who is evidently browsing the same websites decides to name their latest car the same thing. Yes this really has happened to me and I was slightly peeved!


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