Behind the Story: Choosing Character Names

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:
Choosing Character Names

In this week’s post, I’ll delve into how I go about choosing names for my characters.  There’s a lot of things to consider, and I definitely think certain authors have a gift for choosing the perfect names.  Two authors that come to mind are J.K. Rowling and Charles Dickens. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, but by no means am I an expert!

My own tips and tricks for choosing character names:

  1. Baby name websites: Best resource ever for finding character names.  My favorite website is Behind the Name.  You can browse or search for names, and each entry is organized much like a dictionary with pronunciation, origins, meaning, history, and popularity.  I love when my names have special meaning, and I’ve used this website more times than I can count!
  2. Using sounds to your advantage: Certain sounds have certain connotations, whether you are conscious of it or not.  A sharp sound is going to be more serious than sounds that long.  Sorry to keep using Harry Potter for my examples, but Rowling was a wiz with names.  Voldemort = Both the V and T sounds are sharp and bookend the name with their sharpness, plus the added meaning of mort as death.  Severus Snape = Both the V and P sounds are sharp, and the S sound makes his name slippery to say and perfect for a spy.  Whereas Neville Longbottom uses several sounds that are long and slow, particularly the O sound which is one of the slowest vowels.  And his name ending in the “UM” sound just makes the poor bloke sound unsure of himself just simply in his name.  I’m not an expert on this sound stuff, but as I become more aware of it, I’ve found it helps me in choosing the right names for my characters.  
  3. Coming up with a list for later reference: I like to have a list of stock names that I can grab from later if a new character announces its arrival.  Especially if I’m in a certain time period, I’ll make a list of names I like from that period, and make short notes regarding my own reactions to the name “evil” or “sounds strong.”  Usually our own first impressions come with our own subconscious connections to root meanings and sounds.  My lists so often come in handy when a character pops into my head fully-formed and needs a name, and usually one from my list will jump out at me.  It saves me the time of pouring through websites again, especially when I’m in the throws of writing and would rather not stop.
Some other sidenotes:
Surnames have been a lot harder for me to come up with than first names.  I’ve yet to find a single website that I love. Sometimes I have to search for surnames by time period or country in order to find what I’m looking for.
Knowing the time period of your novel is a must in choosing the right name.  But what to do when your novel is in the future?  When I was working on a dystopian/futuristic novel, I went with a sort of melting pot of sorts.  I found names, chopped up their syllables, and made new combinations using the sound connotations and roots I already knew.  It was actually great fun!
Don’t be afraid to change a name if your character grows and changes.  The point at which we assign a name, in a novel’s infancy, is often before we’ve discovered the core of the novel.  I’ve changed a character’s name more times than I can count when the name doesn’t feel right anymore.  It’s okay.  And it will always be good interview fodder for those blog tours down the line  😉
What authors do you think have great names for their characters?

Do you writers have any neat tips or tricks for choosing character names?

7 comments on “Behind the Story: Choosing Character Names

  1. Small Review says:

    I love reading about the meaning behind names. I agree, J.K. Rowling did a great job picking just the right names for her characters. The sound of a name is so important. I think sometimes it's even more important than the actual meaning of the name because it's something a reader unconsciously processes.

  2. LHughes says:

    I'm so glad you agree with me about the sound of names! It's not something that gets a lot of attention in a book review or book conversations, but a great name really adds a lot.Thanks for stopping by to comment! You made my evening 🙂

  3. Small Review says:

    I agree!I've been meaning to stop by all week! 🙂 I really do love your blog. It's funny how much names affect our reading experiences. I find a male character a lot more attractive when his name has harder sounds, especially a hard K like in Jack, Jake, or Mark. Softer male names tend to turn me off a little. I had an extra copy of The Faerie Ring so I offered it to my sister She was really interested in the plot, but as soon as she saw the main character's name was Tiki she gave it back to me. She said she couldn't read a book with a MC named Tiki.

  4. LHughes says:

    That's so funny about your sister disliking the name Tiki!I was pretty shocked that Veronica Roth was able to pull off a male lead with a name like Four. Not only is that a soft name, but also a very bizarre one, and not at all swoonworthy! But perhaps the reason behind his name helped make him extra masculine… and thus hotter?Maybe I'll have to do a post on attractive male names…My brain wheels are turning…

  5. Small Review says:

    Good point. I haven't read Divergent yet, but the name Four does very little for me. I'm not usually a fan of the soft F. At least it's a short name. I think guy names tend to be better if they're shorter. That is a great post idea! I'd love to see what you come up with for it 🙂

  6. LHughes says:

    Whoops! Sorry! Hope I didn't spoil anything for you!

  7. Hillary says:

    I'd definitely be interested in a future post on guy names. I really enjoyed your parsing out the sounds in Rowling's HP. It's interesting how the Sibilant /s/ usually connotes something sinister, slippery and slimy–in other words snake like. Snape is different an awesome name. With that /s/ it comes fully loaded with meaning.

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