Photo via Visualhunt.
So, the odds and ends in your brain have mashed together into a new person for your story, and you’re ready to give them a name, huh? Here are some tips for picking the best name for your character.
Consider the first name that pops into mind
Sometimes your gut is worth listening to. When you’ve developed a character enough that you can picture them in your mind, a name might come to you with little effort.
Try using a common word by changing a letter or two
If “windy” can become “Wendy” (or some sources say, a child’s mispronunciation of “friendly” as “fwendy”), then other words can become a name too. How about “rain” becomes “Tain,” or “bluster” becomes “Xustar”? Admittedly, this works better for fantasy names than contemporary ones.
Use baby naming sites
My go-to sites for baby names are babynames.com (because you can search by meaning) and babynamewizard.com (which provides interesting statistics on a name), but any name site will do. If you search names by meaning, try to avoid really obvious examples, like searching “cruel” and landing on the name Cruella. If the success of 101 Dalmatians has taught us anything, it can be done, but generally it’s a good idea to have more faith in your readers. They’re smart enough to figure out who the bad guy is even without obvious clues.
Try Google Translate
A friend of mine likes to plug in an attribute into Google Translate to see if an appropriate name comes out the other end. For example, “warrior” is translated as “Guerreiro” in Portuguese. You could use it straight (but risk being too obvious for your bilingual readers) or make a name based on it. Perhaps Guerro? But if you go this route it’d probably be a good idea to run the name past someone who speaks the language to make sure it’s not inappropriate or rude to do so in their culture.
The chubby bunny method
This tip is for fantasy names. Another friend of mine likes to stuff her mouth as full as possible with Oreos (crackers or marshmallows would work, too) and then say a normal name. Whatever it sounds like, she writes down phonetically. (It’s similar to the chubby bunny game.) For example, when your mouth is full Jocelyn sounds like Jorshwin, so that’s what she could name her character.
Things to watch out for
Any of these would produce a fine name, but here are a few additional tips on what to be careful of. I strongly recommend that you avoid naming your characters after someone you know. There are exceptions, such as if it’s a story based on their true experience and you have their permission, but generally speaking, it’s a can of worms you don’t want to open. Even if you mean well, they may not take it well.
Once you’ve picked a name, no matter your method, Google it. You need to make sure you’re not naming your character after a real person, as I said above, even if you don’t know them. An example from my own life: I had to write a short story for a college assignment. I had a minor character who was kind of sporty but I didn’t want to draw a lot of attention to him. So, I picked a common first name—Bob—and made his last name the mascot of my high school. That’s how I ended up reading my story aloud in class and getting the side eye for naming a character Bobby Knight. I don’t follow sports, and I had no idea that was a real person, let alone a famous one. When I explained my thought process everyone had a good laugh, but I learned a lesson!
It’s also important to make the name not too hard to spell or pronounce. Have someone else read it aloud. Did they pronounce it right? Does it bother you if they get it wrong? If they read a paragraph or two aloud that has the name in it several times, do they hesitate each time? If so, you may want to make some adjustments.
Perhaps it isn’t the spelling, but that there are multiple names that are similar tripping your beta reader up. A famous example is Sauron and Saruman. Yes, they are different names for different people, and die-hard fans would argue there’s no problem. But the alliteration and similar sounds can make it tricky for the rest of us to keep them straight. Perhaps you have three siblings and they all start with “Far” because of your invented world’s culture. Farwin, Farlad, and Farrent. It can be hard to keep them straight! Try avoiding similar names unless the characters are significantly different in personality and role to help differentiate them.
Finally, remember to take cues from the era and genre. It wouldn’t make sense to have an assassin in a medieval world named Tiffani. Nor would it make sense to have an Caucasian high schooler in an American suburb named Sakura, even if you love the name from anime.
Those are all the tips I have! But perhaps you have some good tips to share too, like my friends did with the Google Translate tip or the chubby bunny method. Let me know in the comments how you name your characters. Ever accidentally make a naming gaffe, like I did with my Bobby Knight?