Naming Your Characters

Once you’ve created that perfect character, you have to name him or her. This can be a challenge to many writers, especially once you’ve gotten a few hundred characters on the page. How do you come up with fresh names for all of those people? Here are some tips for you.

For Main Characters:

  • Choose an ethnic background – nowadays, people just name their kids any old name without caring what the name’s history might be, but characters need to have more rationale for their names. If you want a Hispanic character to tote the name Achmed around, you’d better have a good reason for it (and make sure the readers buy into it). Check out this website for some ethnic ideas.
  • Choose a name by meaning – don’t just settle for something that sounds good. Pick a name that means something appropriate to the story. It took some digging to come up with Chance Knight for my roguish “hero.” It’s worth the time to get just that right name, though. There are plenty of good baby name websites that can help you out; try this one for starters. 
  • Pick a sound – strong characters need strong sounds, like “K” or “P,” while softer characters need more subdued sounds. Try saying each name out loud to see if it matches your view of the character and their personality.
  • Choose a nickname – does your character even have one? It’s best to go ahead and decide, then have certain people use that nickname instead of calling the character by their full name all the time.
  • Pick a matching last name – again, mixing ethnicities might be all the rage today, but it might get confusing to the readers, who have been picturing Perdita as an alluring Spanish maiden, to discover that she’s actually a busty redhead from the O’Malley family. Here’s a good site with a variety of surnames to get you started.
  • Choose an appropriate name – when writing a historical novel, you need to pick names that would have been common for that era. You also need to research the most popular names of each generation. If your book is set in the current day, for example, you wouldn’t be likely to find a heroine named Hester or Ethel. This is a good website for your search.
  • Say the names out loud – sometimes a name that looks great on paper will provoke a laugh when pronounced, for all the wrong reasons. I’m sure you’ve met some real-life people who wished their parents had taken this step before writing their names on that birth certificate.

The Acid Test: once you have a list of possible names, find a friend who has no idea what your characters are like. Ask them to read the names and make some guesses about each character based on those. If their answers are way off base, you need to rethink the names.

Secondary Characters: if a character is important enough to merit a name, but not important enough to spend a lot of time researching, have a few good name websites bookmarked, and just pop over there to mix and match. Be sure to keep good notes, though – you don’t want a second George Rumpel showing up suddenly in a later novel, after killing him off in your first mystery.

Here are some good places I’ve searched over the years:

  • Census data for a particular year and region
  • Old telephone books, school yearbooks, and any other similar list of names
  • Credits on movies and TV shows
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Genealogy websites (if they offer free trials)

This website is another good reference to start you on the road to naming your characters.

What’s your best tip for naming characters?

Advice from the Tony Hillerman Conference

I’ve spent a lovely three days hob-nobbing with other authors and attending writing panels. Here are some gems from the classes.

  • The day I stop learning about my characters is the day I become bored with them — Margaret Coel
  • Good beginnings and endings are like good art: I know it when I see it, but it’s awfully hard to define — Jamie McGrath Morris
  • One of the biggest dialogue mistakes I see is when all the characters sound alike — Craig Johnson
  • Write the kind of novel that, once the reader picks it up, he cannot bear to put it down; not the kind of novel that, once he puts it down, he cannot bear to pick it back up — Margaret Coel
  • Before you even sit down to write, know — in this order — what the ending is, and what the beginning will be — Kirk Ellis
  • Writing is not a profession, but a vocation. Think bigger than just a contract, a published book. Ask yourself ‘Is this worth one to three years of my life?’ before you begin that novel — David Morrell
  • Try this: gather a stack of award-winning novels and read the ending first. Then, read the book to see how the author gets from Point A to Point Z. Do that 500 times. Can you imagine how much you’ll learn about the art of plotting? — Steve Havill
  • Here’s a big secret: have someone read your dialogue back to you — Craig Johnson
  • ‘Let me tell you a story’ is a very powerful lure — Jamie McGrath Morris
  • It’s never as good as it could be. And ‘spoiler alert:’ it’s never going to be — Kirk Ellis
  • Become a student of human nature — Craig Johnson

What is the best advice you’ve ever heard from another writer?

5 Plot Tips

Having trouble thinking of plots? Twisted around when it comes to twists? Here are some tips and tricks to help you solve your problems.

  1. Brainstorm. This is the number one way I come up with plots. Just sit down and write out everything that comes to your mind about your topic. That’s everything. Doesn’t matter how off-the-wall it seems, or how boring. Write it down anyway. You’ll end up with a list of possibilities. Some of them will turn out to be worthless, but lots of them will pan out. You might end up with an idea for a scene, or for an entire novel. And the more ideas you come up with, the more your brain will toss out. It’s like exercising a muscle: use your creative mind and it’ll reward you with more creativity.
  2. Ask questions. Go through your outline (or read through your plot if you’re a “pantser”) and ask yourself as many questions as you can. What if the villain finds out about the hero’s plan? What would I do in this situation? Why does the character make this decision? What would happen if the villain’s plot was discovered by a third character? Then, come up with answers to those questions. The more questions you have, the more plot ideas you’ll find to answer them with.
  3. Wonder. One of the things that makes writers special is their curiosity. Give yours free rein. Surf the internet for new information. Ask people about their jobs or hobbies. Pick up a magazine about a subject unfamiliar to you, or browse a new section of your bookstore. The more information you have, the more plot ideas you can come up with.
  4. Scheme. A great way to improve your plot is to plan ways to thwart your characters. Life is rough, and people don’t want to read about characters who get everything they want without a struggle. Throw roadblocks on the path to their goals. Complicate their lives. Make your characters miserable: it’ll make a more interesting plot.
  5. Turn things around. Try outlining your plot from the point of view of your antagonist, or of a secondary character. This is also a good way to expose plot holes, such as having the villain be an evil genius until it’s time for the hero to defeat him, when he suddenly forgets how to think. Look at your book from another angle and you’ll find new plot twists to play with.

Get started with these ideas and you’ll probably come up with other ways to plot. Turn on your brain and let ‘er rip!

What is the most unusual way a plot has come to you?