An Author's Guide: How to Choose a Character's Name
Updated: Sep 10, 2022
We all know that ‘survivalist’ Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is named after an edible plant, right? But have you ever taken a moment to stop and think about the meaning behind the names of other literary characters? And what do you need to consider when you name a character in your book?
The name of a character is important - whether that's Harry Potter character names (have you ever taken umbrage with someone?), Star Wars character names (Darth Vader - death father) or Pokémon names (Ditto copies, right?) . Some might even argue that the name of a character can be classed as a literary device.
Familiar with the meme of Karen and Ken? Then you know that names carry weight and a wealth of meaning, and those associations change over time.
As my present series revolves around characters that actually have the same name and face, naming characters has become, shall we say, a particular challenge! Names that could be shortened into two different sounding names has been useful for me (for example, Gwendolyn could be shortened into Gwen and Lyn) as have nicknames (Megan goes by Mags in book 4 – and yes, her nickname follows tip 7 below).
Below I run through 9 tips to consider when creating your characters’ names, 5 literary characters I think were named exceedingly well and then I provide root meanings for some of the characters from my series.
9 things to consider when you name your characters:
Historical period – make sure your name suits the era. A Victorian novel needs names used in the Victorian era. This website lists popular baby names by date so it might be worth a look. Of course, if you write Sci-Fi and your novel is set in the future, your choices might be a little more challenging!
Root meanings - baby name websites offer an easy way to search out names and their meanings (this is one of the main ways I name my characters as I like to use root meanings but I also wanted to use traditional Welsh names so used a number of Welsh baby name sites to research names).
Popular (or unpopular!) Associations – consider a name’s links and associations. Does it have a level of weight/meaning that you can either use or that you want to stay away from? Err, Karen? I’d stay away from names that are famous from other works, you’d never escape the association – Harry, for example.
Character name generators – I have never used one myself but I know some people love them. This website lists the generators out there.
Length and familiarity – if your character names are really long or a reader has to spend a lot of time trying to work out the pronunciation, the name is going to detract from your story. Keep names easy to pronounce.
Suitability – names say a lot about a character and can be part of ‘show don’t tell’. A name usually reveals gender, but it could also signal ethnicity and class. A nickname may signal something about personality and behaviour. Names can also signal the age of your character. Titles also carry weight, whether that’s the Duke of St Ives in Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster Romance series, or Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter.
Realistic and unrealistic – you may want your character to have a different, maybe even original name. Different can be good, but you don’t want your book to be packed with long, challenging to read names as it will detract from your story. The world has many Johns and Marys, Wills and Janes. It might be wise to have some of this normality within your world, too…
Be consistent – If your character is called William have him called William or Will or even Bill throughout. Don’t chop and change as it becomes confusing.
Avoid similarity – you don’t want characters to have similar sounding names. Again, you always have to consider the book from the reader’s perspective. You might know the characters and the world inside out but a reader coming to this book for the first time? Help them out and keep things clear. Avoid names that start with the same letter or that sound alike.
5 literary characters named exceedingly well
1. Professor Remus Lupin, the werewolf, in the Harry Potter series. Remus was a mythological character, one of two twins, who was raised by wolves. Remus is the twin that dies. Lupin is a form of the Latin "lupus", translating to the word "wolf". Several of J. K. Rowling’s characters are named in similar fashion.
2. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. As mentioned above, Katniss named after a plant and the translation of its Latin name means archer.
3. Frodo Baggins, Lord of the Rings. Frodo originates from the old English word Fród which means ‘wise from experience’.
4. Scrooge, from A Christmas Carol. This character’s name has so ingrained itself into our consciousness that it has to be included. I can find two theories about Scrooge’s name. Firstly, it could be based on the archaic English word scrouging, meaning crushing or squeezing and secondly, Scrooge could be a play on the word screw, a common 19th-century slang for a miser (apt again). But since both scrouging and screw come from the same linguistic root, both are technically correct.
5. Miss Honey, Matilda. The super sweet and kind teacher – no further comment necessary! In fact, most of Dahl’s name choices reflect the character’s personality. He was simply brilliant at it. Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker? Farmers "Boris and Bunce and Bean, one fat one short one lean. These horrible crooks are different in looks but equally horrid and mean."
For more information on the root meaning of character names in Dickens’ novels, visit this site.
The New York Book Editor’s website gives some good advice about naming characters.
As you read my series, The Guardians' Trust, can you tell why I selected some of the names I did?
Here are a few of my favourites:
Brenin means king;
Cai means Lord;
Evan young warrior;
Garth means gentle, watcher;
Gavan means white hawk;
Griffin means Lord or Prince;
Maddox means champion or good fortune;
Owen means warrior;
Derren means bird;
Meredith (who shares her given name with Mags) means sea;
and Seren means star…
Good luck with your writing!