What’s in a [Character] Name?

Character names can be tricky. They’re one of the first details that introduce readers to your world and what they can expect from your story. They need to be grounded in that world, wherever it may be, unique enough so that you don’t get mixed up with any other well-known names, fictional or real, but not so unique that they strike readers as over the top and potentially alienating.

This struggle often reminds me of an episode of Friends when Monica and Phoebe are taking care of a comatose man in the hospital, imagining who he might be. Phoebe suggests a reasonably realistic name, I think Glenn maybe, and Monica replies “No, not special enough.”

Phoebe comes back with, “How about Agamemnon?” which Monica immediately shoots down, saying, “That’s way too special.”

So, how do you strike the right balance between not special and way too special?

For me, the key is in your story’s setting. Do your character names fit the time period? Do they fit the culture? Do they clash with each other? Agamemnon might get weird looks in 1990s Manhattan, but Glenn wouldn’t exactly fit in in ancient Greece, and I’d never expect them to be brothers, regardless of the time or place.

Take The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, for example. The story is set in a future dystopian North America, so she doesn’t have to worry too much about fitting the time period or culture; she’s making it up. One of her major inspirations though, was Roman gladiatorial combat and idea of “panem et circuses,” the use of food and entertainment to distract citizens into giving up their political power. As such, many of her characters have names derived from Latin, especially Roman historical and mythological figures. Even though she pulled these names out of their time period, she pulled multiple names, so they meshed and shaped the world she created. She also utilized names drawn from nature, like Katniss, Rue, Primrose, and Gale—again, using more than one so no name felt random or out of place—and more often than not she used those names for the characters from the less grand corners of Panem, which helped her worldbuilding further by suggesting class differences between the different types of names. These decisions set her parameters for believable names, with some characters, like Peeta, sounding as though they fit with the world, and others, like Glimmer, that weren’t quite as convincing.

So, once you have some of your parameters in mind, how do you find names that fit within them?

Nameberry.com is the obvious place to start. They have lists based on just about anything you can imagine, from “popular in the 1940s” to “names meaning fire”  to “cowgirl names.” If you’re trying to evoke a specific time period, setting, or feeling, this is a good way to find multiple name options quickly. Or maybe you have 2 or 3 names already and you just need a couple more that would sound good with them; Namberry has a name generator that does exactly that!

Another useful place I’ve recently discovered is ancestry.com. I got a bit obsessive with it the past 2 weeks using up my free trial and among the expected Willams, Johns, Elizabeths, and Sarahs, I discovered some surprisingly interesting names in my family tree. Names like Auzelle, Austa, Commodore, Verba Mae, Epke, Florilla, Early, and Docia. You don’t even have to look at your own relatives, just flipping through the census records can provide you with a ton of unexpected, but still authentic names for a given time period and region.

If your story is inspired by something, maybe a pre-existing story, character, or legend, you can always look for ways to tip your hat to the original through your character names. Many people have pointed out the names of certain main characters in Frozen reference the author of the original “Snow Queen” fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen, if you say them all together—Hans, Kristoff, Anna, Sven. Another example is Elphaba in Gregory Macguire’s Wicked; he used The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum’s initials to determine what the name of his Wicked Witch of the West should be.

No matter how you come up with your character names, the key thing is to check their consistency with the rest of your story so that they build the world for your readers, rather than take them out of it.

One thought on “What’s in a [Character] Name?

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