How to Name Your Characters

Finding character names can present considerable challenges. Here are a few tips to help you to surmount those hurdles.

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There are many different ways to find inspiration when naming your characters. Real life, for example, can often inspire your fictional creations, so you may find the name ends up being a spin on a first-hand encounter. On the other hand, occasionally you may find you have to do a little research before you settle upon a name which fits. To do this, you will have to resort to a few methods to find a name for your character, so here are a few tips I’ve found rather useful.

1. First Names

Speaking personally, a solution to this is fairly simple: go out and buy a book of baby names. Then you can leaf through the book until you find names which, for whatever reason, jump out to you as apt. It could be the first name itself, or the meaning of the name, but either way this may help get you started. Alternatively, there are also many online websites and resources which can help you – the Office of National Statistics (ONS) website has spreadsheets of baby names for the UK available to download which I’ve found extremely useful.

In fact, I would recommend keeping your own spreadsheet of first names and using a website such as random.org to randomise the names until you find one which you like for your character. This being said, you will often find a first name in isolation is insufficient, and sometimes characters are better defined by their full names. With a surname included, for example, the name Derek Trotter is suitably comic, but it’s the atypical flourish of the ‘Del Boy’ nickname thrown in which really sums up his personality. But no matter what, the first name is where it begins.

2. Surnames

Now this is where it gets tricky. Back in the day, I used to have a copy of the Yellow Pages or Thomson Local which was very handy to flick through and find surnames for my characters. These days, however, print is a dying medium, so you’ll be lucky if anyone tries to post a copy of either though your letterbox. So, in the absence of this, what’s a writer to do? Your best answer, I’ve found, is genealogy websites, such as findmypast.co.uk. There’s a really useful A-to-Z index of UK-based surnames which is well worth digging through.

Now, back to that spreadsheet – if you add an extra tab of surnames, you can go through a similar process of randomising not only the first name, but also the surname, to see what interesting pairings come up. Then, soon enough, you’ll find a decent name for your character presents itself without too much agonising. Obviously, I can only speak for my own method, so different writers may have other ideas, but I find the above strategy gets good results for me.

3. Meanings and Definitions

The last tip is more to do with delving a little bit deeper to analyse the subtext of your name choices. Once you’ve shortlisted first names and surnames which seem appropriate for your character, I recommend you research the etymology of the names, the hidden meanings, or family surname origins to further reinforce your choice. What’s more, think of the onomatopoeia, how it sounds – is it a name which rolls off the tongue? Does it sound like it’s describing the personality of your character, and not just their label?

To give you a further example, Charles Dickens was a master at this – Uriah Heap, for example, genuinely sounds like a schemer and wrings his hands like only a Uriah truly would.

 

In conclusion, pay attention to the holy trinity: the first name and its meaning, the surname and its background, and how this is conveyed and sounds when melded together. Irrespective of how you reach this point, once you’ve settled upon those three elements, you will have given birth to your character as painlessly as possible. Well, less pain than physically giving birth anyway.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and aspiring novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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