Picking Character Names Is Trickier Than It Looks

The sci-fi novel I’m currently working on is coming along slowly but steadily. I’m planning to write a full update on those goals later on this spring, but for now I wanted to talk about picking character names.

I find it fairly easy to describe little things like what characters eat for dinner or how they’d react to a beautiful sunset if such a scene were somehow relevant to the storyline.

Picking names for them, though, is tough.

I can’t tell you all how many hours I’ve spent combing through sites that suggest names for human babies, pets, and/or Dungeons and Dragons characters in order to get as many different possibilities as I can. Google is probably thoroughly confused about what on Earth is going on in my household by now!

Names have all sorts of associations with them in general, from the naming fashions of certain decades or centuries to personal experiences a writer or reader may have had with someone who had a specific name.

Naming Trends

If I read a blurb about contemporary characters with vintage names that fell out of fashion a century ago, I’d generally expect their story to be set in an era when those names were more common or for the plot to give hints about why these characters were given such old-fashioned names.

A few years ago, I noticed a surge in young adult novels that gave their protagonists names that are very rare for contemporary teenagers. The plots themselves were well done, but I found myself getting so caught off-guard by teenagers who had names that I’d previously only seen on gravestones or room tags in nursing homes.

With that being said, I have an older relative who was given an old-fashioned name they didn’t like at all when they were young. Skip ahead a few generations, and that name became wildly popular once again. So the fashionability of a name definitely can change.

Personal Experiences

Talking about naming trends doesn’t even begin to take account for all of the positive and negative associations we’ve all formed based on our experiences with people who had or who have certain names. (No, I don’t have any strong opinions about the name Wilbur. I simply liked this stock photo).

When I was a freshman in high school, my district hired a new music teacher whose only previous experience with someone called Lydia had not been a positive one. She didn’t go into detail, but she eventually mentioned something about her opinion of this name improving quite a bit based on her good experiences with me as a student.

There are a handful of names I’ve formed unpleasant relationships with due to past experiences I’ve had with people who had them. I’ve steered away from using them in any of my stories, and I think that trend is going to continue for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, I’ve met some people who are so lovely that I’m eager to use their names in stories when possible. I still don’t know what the etiquette of this is, but I’ve found myself asking a person or two for permission before using their names even though the characters I’m creating otherwise have little or nothing in common with them.

But Does It Fit the Character?

Even after all of this research, you still have to figure out if a specific name actually fits the character it was intended for.

One of the wonderful things about creating characters is how unpredictable they can be. I’ve had some characters who lean into their names right away and others who don’t quite fit the first half-dozen names I test out on them.

If you’re not a writer, know that these kinds of experiences are common. Just because a writer comes up with a character doesn’t mean that we have control over how that character behaves!

A few times a week I see updates from fellow writers who were surprised by what their creations do. It’s quite common and can be pretty funny in retrospect if you have a good sense of humour about it.

If you’ve ever had to name a character, what have your experiences been?




Filed under Science Fiction and Fantasy, Writing

16 Responses to Picking Character Names Is Trickier Than It Looks

  1. I agree, it’s very interesting how a name’s popularity can really change. I have a friend that has both an older first and middle name, while her sibling has two rather common, fashionable ones. They both perfectly suit their names, but their opinions of them have changed over time.
    It can definitely be difficult to determine a character name because in some ways you want to think about that character’s age and how their name might have impacted their lives. Does “Sarah” always feel like she blends into the woodwork, and the popularity of her name adds to it? Or perhaps “Delilah” sticks out like a sore thumb, or “Evangeline” adores her name and it makes her strong and proud. It could be a major factor in their character, or just another facet.

    • Yes, exactly!

      I find it very intersting that your friend’s parents picked such a wide variety of names. Most of the parents I know who picked their kids names* stuck to the same naming styles for all of their kids

      *I know several people who adopted children and kept those kid’s original first/middle name.

      Names are such an interesting topic in general. Have you ever named a pet or child or anything?

      • I do too, but I hadn’t actually thought about it until writing my comment because their names fit them so well. They have joked about switching middle names before though! Yes, a lot of the time there is a theme or style maintained when naming siblings, but I find it very interesting when the naming patterns are completely different for half-siblings.

        I have (and have had) several pets, and find that I seem to favour old English names as a general rule for that, but my ideas regarding children are a bit more all over the place for origin, but not for feel.

        What about you? Have you named children or pets? What sorts of names do you prefer?

        • I’ve never named a child, but I have named pets. Old English names are perfect for animals. Perfectly silly ones can also be fun. I once had hamsters named Cherry and Pretty. 🙂

          It’s very interesting when naming patterns shift for half-siblings. Have you seen that happen a lot?

  2. I’ve got a character named Juana in Storytellers. She was born in the US around 1868. Together with two of my beta-readers we tried and tried to come up with a different, more common name that would fit her, but we failed. She simply isn’t a Sarah, a Jane, a Kate, she IS Juana and there is nothing that can be done about it. So instead I’ve done enough research to come up with a backstory explaining how and why her parents named her that – in the unlikely case someone ever asks 🙂

  3. I once used the (last) name of an extremely nasty person I once knew for a villain in one of my stories. It just fit so perfectly…

  4. This might be strange but I LOOOOVE naming stuff haha. Like the best part about having children is naming them, right? 😂 And I LOVE naming characters too. To be fair, I have always had a real fascination with names. I made my mom buy me a baby name book at the bookstore when I was little and the cashier congratulated her. Oops? But I absolutely agree about the association thing too- because it really CAN make or break a name! I had named a character, and then read a book a few months later with the same name on an AWFUL character and I knew now I’d have to change it.

  5. I keep a list of fourteenth-century names that I come across when I’m reading reference books about the period. There are also a couple of useful websites that list names from court cases. Medieval names can be very tricky, because they’re often very different from modern names. Sometimes I’ll go with something that’s definitely fourteenth-century and sometimes I’ll choose a medieval name that has survived. Unfortunately, there aren’t a huge number of these.

    • That is such a smart idea. What was the average fourteenth-century name like? I wonder why so many of the names from the medieval era were never recorded?

      • John and William were the most popular men’s names, but there were also a lot of Thomases. I’m not sure what the most popular women’s names were.

        Births, deaths and marriages weren’t registered then, so names were only recorded in legal documents and not all of those have survived. Names appear in wills, property transactions, indentures and court records. Some marriages were recorded if a fee was due to the lord of the manor.

        • Oh, I remember you saying stuff like that on your previous posts. I’m fascinated by the thought of not registering births, marriages, and deaths.

          I wouldn’t have guessed that John, William, and Thomas were so popular. Interesting!

          • They were so popular that if you were an Englishman at Agincourt and you weren’t called John Archer, you were probably called William Archer. Amazingly, lots of lists of the members of retinues have survived from that campaign and they’re available online. Of the men there with my surname four were called John, two were called William, another was a Nicholas, one was a Henry, one Roger and one was Gwylou, which I think is a version of William.

            The database is here https://www.medievalsoldier.org/dbsearch/

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