4 Tips for Naming Characters

Naming characters is a significant task for the writer that can turn into a huge time-suck. While planning my fifth middle grade novel, Saving Arcadia, I decided I had to change my character naming methods. My brother and sister duo had placeholder names, Kai and Kirra Bailey, but I knew I had to change them. Before you read on, see if you can guess why. I’ll explain below.

Do read on! In addition to 4 Tips for Naming Characters, I have a list of character naming resources, a you-bewt hack for name-picking, and a few bloopers from my checkered character naming adventures!

Changing Character Names is a Pain

A number of years ago when I was working with my former agent, she asked me to change my protagonist’s name. I nearly wept. Deciding on the name had been an enormous ordeal — it always is for me. The name I’d chosen, Paige Summers, was significant and subtly symbolic, even if only to me, and her name helped me know her. Changing her from Paige to Kate West (the agent’s choice) was hard; ‘Paige’ kept reasserting herself in my mind.

Appellation Fascination

Naming should be fun, right? Well, sort of. I have a life-long fascination with names, both first and last. I remember as a five-year-old wishing my name was Rachel, and my grandmother being horrified. (She voted for Sally for me). I love to study the etymology and the history of names. It’s part hobby, part obsession that has resulted in a stockpile of name-related factoids taking up valuable real estate in my brain.

You’d think this name knowledge would be helpful, but it’s not. It complicates things. I find it hard to take a name at face value, and if I’m not extremely careful, my names can be as subtle as a knee in the groin. For example, my very first manuscript Photophobia (YA horror) featured protagonist Jemima Flynn pitted against antagonist Serge Dvorak. Cringe… No, no, not subtle at all…

When I set out to name characters, the cogs in my mind start turning… and grinding… and churning out names. And so it goes, on and on, without my help, round and round. I get quite overwhelmed — and slightly maddened — by the endless loop of names, names, names. God help me if it starts when I lie down to go to sleep.

I had to change Kai and Kirra Bailey, but I was determined to do it without wasting time and mental energy.

So I outsourced. <<< CHARACTER NAMING HACK

Yep! I did. I made my friends do the dirty work. It was so much fun. I set myself a limited amount of time to pick and pair first names for my brother and sister characters. Then I created a Google Form and asked my friends and followers to vote. Everyone enjoyed it, and it created some fun engagement on my author Facebook page. Here are some pictures.

The poll resulted in a tie, so I had to make the final choice. I used Arlo and Eleanor for my brother/sister protagonists,  and another popular choice, Jed and Stella, became their parents’ names. I am thrilled with the outcome.

Top 4 Naming Considerations

Tip 1: Be Subtle … or Purposely Unsubtle

…and definitely don’t mention the name’s meaning or origin unless knowing this is a legitimate part of the story. There’s nothing worse than a character whose name  does a combo tap dance, drum solo, and soliloquy  every time s/he comes on stage.

If you’re going all-out, do it for a reason. For example, a not-so-subtle name is featured in the first line of CS Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Great opening line, and wow, what a moniker. I’m hooked. 

Alliteration and rhyme aren’t subtle, so definitely save them for humour, satire, or children’s books. Case in point: Amelia Bedelia is a cracker of a name, but it sets up an expectation of hilarity. A serial killer with that hashtag would be unbelievable. (But, hang on… now that I write it, I’m getting a different vibe, a whoa — cool vibe. Bedelia feels kinda creepy, like Hannibal L…. *Scribbles note in Idea File… )

Alliterated or rhyming names taint the realism. In real life, sensible most some parents shy away from silly-sounding names, so if your book is realistic, take care. Jack and Jill is a good example of how we (English speakers, at least) are conditioned for alliteration to lead to a nursery rhyme. Stella Strange has a kooky vibe to it (and is probably a character somewhere in Bookland; if not DIBS!). So do Adele Manuel, Austin Boston, and Berryl Farrell. (Hang on a minute… *More scrawly scribbling in my Idea File…)

Tip 2. Pair Carefully

Think about pairings too, like my brother and sister, but also lovers, spouses, or two best friends who will be referred to in unison. You don’t want to end up with multiple occurrences of ‘Bill and Ben’, unless you intend to write a goofy, oddly enduring rhyme about Flowerpot Men.

Tip 3. Every Character Has Parents

As a kidlit writer, I always consider the parents of my characters. What kind of names do they like? Hippy parents probably won’t name their kids Donald, John, or Mary. Conservative parents might shy away from groovy names like Willow, Luna, and Strider. Culture, ethnicity, era, religion, and even geography are factors when parents name their kids, so ask your characters’ parents for some advice on naming their kids.

Tip 4. Think about Initials

Over the years, I’ve encountered numerous publishing professionals who advise writers to avoid using names that start with the same letter, especially in kidlit. While Rowan and Rory are very different names, emerging readers might find them confusing. I stumble on this point with every manuscript. Completely by accident, the first draft of my WIP ended up with secondary characters named Maurice, Manuel, Maya, and Mahalia. Oops!

Minding the Family Name

So Kai and Kirra were not good choices for first names for several reasons, but what was the problem with Bailey for the last name?

In my story Saving Arcadia, the family business name has a series of Bs in it, and I thought it would be fun to call it Bailey’s Bizarre Bazaar. However, a friend pointed out to me that there is a popular middle grade series with twin protagonists surnamed Bailey. It’s not a huge problem, but I decided I’d steer away from it.

Also, (Feel free to quote this…)

“A little alliteration is lovelier than a lot. 😉

Ali Stegert, accidental alliterist

I tried something new with my latest manuscript. I ditched Bailey, and rather than lose a day or more mulling over the perfect surname, I went for a drive and ‘tuned into’ my reticular activating system. I set an intention: “I need a good family name. Not just any name, something perfect for my characters.” The first name my eyes fell on was on the sign of a local alternative medical practitioner…

Dr. {  } Wild

The serendipity blew me away! Wild (or Wilde, as I’ve chosen to spell it) is a stupendous name for the free-range family in my story. Mind you, it’s children’s literature, so I can afford to be playful with names.

Helpful Naming Resources

Back in the day, the standard writer’s trick was to close your eyes, open a phone book to any page, and point. Nowadays, you’d have to find a phone book first. Good luck with that!

You can do the same thing with any number of online random name generators. Many have filters, such as nationality, age, middle name, etc. This tool works for some better than for others. For me, it’s a little like putting a coin in a vending machine and expecting a piping hot, home-cooked meal: Ultimately disappointing. But to each his/her own.

For Ethnic Names:

I give a lot of consideration the names of my POC characters to avoid stereotype and to add authenticity. I consider their family of origin, their year and country of birth, the language they speak at home, and more.

The Students of the World website is a useful resource. Here’s an example of a Spanish name search. I get to the lists by searching: “popular (Spanish) names penpal.”

For Historical Names:

Do a search for most popular names in a particular year (i.e., the year of birth of your character). I don’t go with the top ten unless the character’s parents were particularly unimaginative, and I consider how it sounds with the family name. William Williamson is probably not a great name. (Sorry to any Will Williamsons out there.)

For Fantasy Names:

Lots of fun but do be careful. Some of these sites look suspicious.

https://www.fantasynamegenerators.com/

What the Dickens?

One of the best parts about writing children’s books is you’re supposed to be playful. You don’t have to be Dickens to use whacky names. Dickens is credited with some of literature’s most memorable and off-the-wall names:

  • Ebenezer Scrooge
  • Uriah Heep (BOO, HISS!)
  • Miss Havisham
  • Mr. Pumblechook
  • Oliver Twist

Here’s an article that unravels the marvelous mystery of Dickensian names and gives my little name-loving heart a dopamine rush.

Every once in a while, I come across a funny word that would make a great name. I have kept a list for years. In an upcoming planned MG spy adventure novel, my antagonist will be called…

Agatha Throttlebottom

I can’t wait to create her.

Over to You…

Do you have any fabulous tips for naming characters? Please leave a comment.

Image Credits

2 Thoughts

  1. Hi Ali,
    Love your post on character name creation.
    I’ve put my character names through your tests.
    Mostly they come up trumphs … thank goodness.
    Love your name choices too,
    Cheers,
    Karen 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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