What’s in a Name? Finding the right Names for your Characters

In my last post, I shared that getting to know my characters is my favorite part of the writing process. I find one of the most difficult parts of developing characters is picking their names. There are many factors to consider when deciding on a name – the character’s personality, their age and the era they live in. I often end up changing a character’s name several times in the draft writing processes because as I get to know them, I find the name I initially picked for them just doesn’t suit their personality.

Character NamesIn my early writing days, I picked a name for a character simply because it was a name I liked or because it sounded pretty. But after a while, it just sort of fell flat. It didn’t fit the character. Now, I take more time in the naming process because I like their names to have meaning, to say something about them, to contribute something to the story.

For example, in my previous novel about three generations of women, the last name was particularly important because my three main characters would share it. I chose Winters, taking into consideration the connotations of the word. Winter can be beautiful, yet cold and stark, reflecting the beauty of my protagonist while also depicting her mother’s harshness and lack of maternal instinct.

Here are some places you might look for name inspiration:

  • The Social Security Administration – This baby name database  from the Social Security Administration lists the top 100 male and female baby names for each decade since the 1880s. Determine when your character was born and, if in the U.S., you can look at top names by decade. This is a great way to find age-appropriate names for your characters.
  • Yearbooks – Blow the dust off your own yearbooks, or visit the local library which might have decades of yearbooks available to search. Another great way to find from the right era.
  • Baby Name Sites – Websites like BabyNames.com are great tools to search for names, their meanings and origins, and reference name lists. Does the meaning of your character’s name reflect their identity or conflict with it? For fun, try the Random Renamer or find an online random name generator!
  • Phone books – If you can still get your hands on a hard copy phone book, open to a random page and pick a name. Or browse until something inspires you.
  • Name Origin Sites – I often spend so much time choosing a character’s first name, I forget to give them a last name. Consider your character’s heritage and family background. I have used this website Behind the Name which allows you to look up surnames by origin and meaning.
  • Newspapers – Scan headlines and newspaper articles to see if a name jumps out at you.

As you find names you like, be sure to write them down!

Some other things to think about when naming your characters: Give your character a nickname. Was your character teased in school? Do they despise their full name and instead go for a shorter nickname? Nicknames can be a useful device. In my previous novel, my main character was called Kate by her friends, but her mother only ever referred to her by her full name, Katherine. I used this as a way to portray the distance in their relationship.

Be wary of giving central characters similar sounding names or names that start with the same letter. As different as your characters may be, giving them similar names can be confusing for readers. I also try to avoid names that are awkward to pronounce. As a reader, names that are unpronouncable can pull me out of a story. Try saying your characters names outloud to see how they sound. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.

As I plan my NaNo novel, I’m trying to carefully pick the right names for all my characters so I don’t have to change them later on.

How do you choose names for your characters?

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Six Techniques for Getting to Know your Characters

When I get an idea for a story, it almost always starts with a character. My favorite part of the writing process is getting to know my characters. I like to know their background, what makes them tick. I want to know what makes them happy, what they fear, what keeps them up at night and what they carry with them in their pockets.

Whether your story is plot focused or character driven, well-rounded characters are essential for any story.

Characters can bring a story to life. A good character can feel like an old friend by the time we finish a book – they are what keep me coming back to books I love again and again.

Here are a few ways to get to know your characters:

Character Sketch – When a character comes to me, I usually only have a vague sense of them, while the details are fuzzy. Begin with the basics: their age, where they live, hair and eye color.  Describe their features.

Then start thinking about the details of their appearance, their likes and dislikes. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What style of clothing do they wear?
  • What kind of music, books or movies do they like?

Go deeper into thinking about your characters’ personality. Ask:

  • What are their regrets and their dreams?
  • How would other characters in your novel describe them?
  • What sort of first impression they make?

Give your characters’ strengths but don’t forget to give them flaws. Perhaps your protagonist is ambitious but self-involved and critical. No one is perfect, and a too-perfect character will fall flat. We all have vulnerabilities, our characters should have them too.

Pick their Astrological Sign – I’m not a big believer in horoscopes, but I love to assign my characters an astrological sign. Is your character a creative, quiet Pisces or a playful, risk-taking Leo? Years ago, I purchased a book called Your Star Sign Life Coach by Lorna MacKinnon. I use this book to look at each astrological sign’s strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes to help flesh out my characters. This book also breaks down parenting styles and relationship behaviors that help me to think about what kind of parent my character would be, or how they are in a romantic relationship. Always stay true to your character when picking their sign, but use these traits to think about them in a more meaningful way.

Freewrite or Journal – Freewriting is an unstructured way to learn about your main characters. Write journal entries from the perspective of your protagonist. You can keep it simple, reflecting on the character’s day or go deeper. Write a letter from your central character to the antagonist. How does your main character feel about him or her? Did something happen between them in the past that will add to the tension in the present narration of your story?

Write a short story – My last NaNo novel actually began as a short story that evolved into a novel-length work. Thinking about your characters or your story on a smaller scale can be more manageable and less overwhelming before trying to write a whole novel about them. Is one of your minor characters still a bit fuzzy for you? Try writing a short story from their perspective. Think about your main character’s history or backstory. Craft a snapshot of your character with a defining moment that shapes him or her. You may end up with some usable material for your novel!

Find their celebrity likeness – In NaNoWriMo’s past, I have found celebrities who resemble my characters and pin their pictures to a Pinterest board dedicated to my NaNo Novel. Selecting a celebrity lookalike for my characters is fun and it helps me to imagine my characters and more accurately describe their features.

Pink Ballet SlippersTake a walk in their shoes – In college, I took a beginner ballet class to get to know my main character, who was – you guessed it, – a ballet dancer. I could have done all the research in the world about ballet, the structure of the classes, the life of a dancer – but I learned more in that semester than I could have in a year of writing and researching.

Get into the psyche of your character by participating in their hobbies and getting to know the things they enjoy. Take advantage of free or inexpensive classes in your area. Is your character a fantastic cook? Take a cooking class and learn techniques for chopping and sauteing. If participating in a class isn’t an option, ask the instructor if you could simply sit-in on and observe a few classes and explain why – it’s worth a shot.

You can do this on a smaller scale, too. Does your character drink herbal tea? Trying drinking a steaming mug of tea while writing from their perspective. Get involved in networking groups in your area or follow blogs about topics your character might find of interest.

Like any relationship, the most important factor for me in getting to know my characters is time. I can’t learn everything there is to know about them overnight, or even in a month. But slowly, as I write about them and as I go about my day and they appear in my thoughts, they reveal themselves. This is, by far, what I love most about writing.

What techniques help you get to know your characters?