Come play inside a writer's brain, scary!

We all know celebrities are different – why else would chef Jamie Oliver, name his children Buddy Bear Maurice, Poppie Honey Rosie, Daisy Boo Pamela and Petal Blossom Rainbow? Superhero fan, Nicholas Cage, called his offspring Kal-el Coppola, while the Beckhams have baby Cruz, and Gwyneth Paltrow had an Apple. I’m not making these up. Check for more.

Romance novels used to be a haven for exotic names – one of my earliest books featured hero, Race Wolfendale, I kid you not. Today you’re more likely to read about Matt, Jack and Adam, and that’s no bad thing. I once read an American romance where the heroine’s double-barrel name was so distracting I had to modify it in my head just to finish an otherwise enjoyable book.

So here are five handy hints for character naming:

  1. The name you choose should be different enough to be interesting, but not so off-the-wall as to sound ridiculous (see above). It can help to match an unusual name with a more everyday one – such as Kerry Greenwood’s lady detective of the 1920s,  Phyrne (pronounced fry-nee) Fisher.
  2. Think about the ethnic origins of your character name. If it’s Greek (like Phryne) or Italian, can you include some ethnic aspects in your character’s background? In my book, Island of Dreams the heroine, Lisa Alexander, had Russian parents. Her birth name was Lisanko Nikitayevna Alexandrov and her parents’ refugee background had much to do with Lisa’s character. I turned plenty of mental handsprings trying to find an authentic Russian name that would convert to a convincing Australian version.  The success of that book and its many translations and serialisation made the work worthwhile. More importantly, Lisa had greater depth because she wasn’t born on page one.
  3. Don’t stop at the first name that comes to mind. Occasionally a character will come to you fully formed including their name. This is a gift from the creative gods. Use it and be thankful. More often, writers have to work at finding the ideal combination of hero and heroine. And if you want these people to marry one day, consider how her first name and his last name will go together. If Ms. Paltrow’s daughter marries someone called Pye …well you get the idea.
  4. Avoid similarities between the names of main characters. This is basic but often overlooked, especially if you change a name during the book’s development without considering the other names already in place. Having a Mac and a Matt, a Jenny and a Joanne, while they may not look all that similar, can cause confusion in the reading.
  5. Have fun with your characters. Explore them and ask what they might be called and why. When researching for my MA, I was surprised to find that nearly all my heroines have more than one name, like Lisa above, and it was usually important to the story, yet I only connected the dots with hindsight. It’s also impossible to think of a name that doesn’t belong to some real person somewhere. As long as there aren’t too many similarities – calling your hero Fred Bloggs and making him a lawyer living in a particular part of Adelaide, say, when there’s a real person fitting all these elements – you should be OK legally. Search for a particular name on Facebook and you’ll be surprised how even the most unusual name is shared by dozens of people. I’ve had emails from people with the same names as my characters. Most are good-natured and think it’s fun. A few hint that I may have borrowed their names unfairly. I refer these to the disclaimer in every book that says any resemblance etc etc is purely coincidental. Just because a friend’s name creeps into a book now and then, as a compliment to them, doesn’t change that disclaimer one bit.

How do you choose character names? What are your favourites and least favourites in fiction, and why? Share by commenting below.


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Comments on: "Naming rites – how to find the right names for your characters" (21)

  1. Naming characters is one of the perks of writing fiction. I really love writing animal names. YOu can have so mych fun. I have one dog – a blue heeler – called Archillies Heel – get it!!!!!

  2. Great article, Valerie. Years ago during a phone call with a male client he suddenly said, ‘I’ve got a confession to make.’ He sounded very sheepish as he reminded me that he had been doing a screenwriting course and then went on to say that he was horrified when he realised that he had given the female antagonist in his script my name! I thought it was quite funny and it certainly didn’t hurt business as he seemed to throw more my way to make up for it:-). I love naming characters but find there’s a fine line between that really interesting name on page one and how annoying it can become by page 100+.

  3. My characters will NOT behave until I have found their correct name. Some of them give it up easily–others make me sweat and swear and bang my head against the wall until I find it. So I totally agree with you that it’s a vital part of character-building!

    And I’m also with you on the “weird” names. I remember judging some Golden Heart entries years ago and one of them started with the heroine, upon her first meeting with the hero, explaining how to pronounce her name. And his reply? To explain how to pronounce HIS right back at her. Oy, vey, if it’s that hard, I’m out.

    • I feel your pain on finding the right names. I use everything from screen credits on TV to street names on maps and spend way longer than I should. On the other hand, imagine if your character proves as lasting as Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock. You’d want to get it right. I’m also guessing the Golden Heart entry didn’t get too far.

  4. I like to go to a numerology website and run the name to see if it fits the bill. It’s awesome, and it gives me loads of insight…fleshes out the ephemeral thoughts I’ve had about the character. It’s also fun.

    • Hey Laura, you made it here! Welcome. Yes, numerology, sun signs, anything that gives a character extra depth is a good resource. Baby naming sites and books can only take us so far.

  5. My current Hero is named Wolf, short for Wolfgang. His mother’s family comes from Germany so he and his brother ended up with German names. His brother Kiefer had an easier time at school (thanks to famed actor, Kiefer Sutherland) but poor Wolfgang did it tough, even after he shortened it to Wolf. As a result he despises bullies in all their shapes and forms…

    • Exactly what I mean about using the name to enrich the characters. How many people had similar issues at school over names, and will identify with Wolf’s problems? All the best with the book. Like Kiefer too, does he get a book in time?

  6. It’s slightly different writing historicals as the name has to fit the time of the story and naming preferences do tend to change. I always try to give the main characters names or nicknames that give some indication of their strength … or lack thereof.

  7. Delightful article! Naming characters is one of my favourite activities! I know they’re going the way of the dodo, but phone books can also be helpful. (Especially if you live in a major metropolis with multiple ethnicities from which to choose, as we used to!) I also used to flip through the pages of TV Guide (when it was small and manageable). The only characters I’ve given names that might challenge the reader were science fiction.

    Mom’s characters usually appear fully formed & named. Mine are more work. We’ve been discussing which ones to make the lead characters in our upcoming mystery series, and found some previous research & naming work in a notebook (while looking for something else). 🙂 Sometimes a change of lead characters is vital to a story, and this could just be one of those times.

    Race Wolfendale! Love it!!!

  8. The heroine in my second Gypsy Legacy book’s name was Carolyn Felicia. Her name was originally just Felicia, but then I needed to give her a first name that fit into the plot. I later received an email from a woman by the name of Carolyn Felicia. She said she’d googled her name and found my books – so she bought them and read them.

  9. I find that if I give a secondary character an interesting name I then want to write about them as well. Names are a good way of confusing the issue too if as you say the character have more than one name. Had some poor heroine hating the sound of some guy she hadn’t met called RJ and then found it it was a guy she’d been with called Richard.

    • True Fiona. The tricky part for me is not letting the interesting secondary character become too prominent in the current book, another sneaky way the mind tries to get us off track LOL.

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