Choosing Character Names in Fiction

Writing SilhouetteHow do you choose a character name? There are several ways to choose an effective name in the process of writing a short story. The easiest way to choose a character name is to browse through popular baby names on the internet. There are several sites that will show up on a Google search, especially if you use search terms such as, ‘popular boy names’ or ‘names for girls.’ To choose a character name that is from another nation, you can perform an online search for French or Japanese names and surnames.

Books are also printed which contain an index of hundreds of character names and you can find these books in the writing section of your local bookstore. One excellent resource is from Writers’ Digest, The Character Naming Sourcebook. It contains an extensive list of first names and a good handful of common surnames as well.  What about surnames? Just as with first names, you can perform an online search for ‘surname’ or ‘last name’ as well. You can also use a character surname based on street or location names in your local geography.

Man's SilhouetteThere are many ways to refine your selection of a character name. You can choose a name that simply sounds good or a character name that has a particular meaning. Many name sites on the internet will give you the meaning of a particular name, as will most books with indexes of names. Not all characters have realistic names and you may want an outrageous or poetic character name to fit a particular mood in your writing style. For example, science-fiction character names may sound quite outlandish and unusual. In this case, you may want to try an unconventional approach to the given name and surname, such as using words from another language, or compound words. Luke Skywalker is an example of a science-fiction name with a compound word.

Woman's SilhouetteBut science-fiction is not the only fiction that calls for unique names. The mystery genre tends toward spicy, unusual names and there is the difficulty of choosing a name that feels historically accurate when you’re working in period fiction. In the case of writing a mystery, using words that have strong character is a good idea. Last names like Black, or playfully similar sounding names, such as Wickham for the ‘Wicked’ character convey a subtle message in alliteration or tone. In the case of historical fiction, it’s best to study the period. If you are unsure of the popular names of any given period of history, look for a chronological list of composers, artists and writers of the time period. There will be a wealth of information as to the full names of historical persons from which you can draw for your own characters. Never take the name of a famous person directly. And remember, even great stage names of the past like Molière were likely derived from a town or province in the countryside, in this case, of France. Be creative and daring, like Molière, and seek inspiration in unlikely places.

On the other hand a modern-day, urban story may require that you choose a character name that sounds just like one of your friends, coworkers, or cousins. It’s best if you always create the name and try never to use someone’s actual name in your story. Fiction is supposed to be fiction after all.