How To Choose Character Names

by Hope Hanson
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How To Choose Character Names graphic

Currently, I have two main works in progress. One is a contemporary retelling (though I won’t say of what) and one is a Celtic faerie story. But what I’d like to talk about today occurred to me because of the latter. So, today’s topic is: How to choose character names.


Basically, about a third of the way through outlining this book, I realized something. Three of my central characters had similar names. Too similar names. I wanted to kick myself for not realizing earlier. I mean, come on. Aoife, Aisling, and Ailbe? I really should have noticed sooner.

Anyway, it made me think about character names. Where do they come from? How should you choose them? What makes them good or bad?

Obviously, this is mostly for fun. There isn’t any set of rules for naming your characters, and there are so many ways to go about it. But I thought it would be interesting to share some of the ways I come up with names. I hope you enjoy it! And hopefully, you’ll get some ideas for how to choose character names, too!

#1: Meaningful names

I think this is the most common method. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite things to do; I love looking up the origins of the names of characters in the books I’m reading, just to see if they relate to that character. For example, in The Raven Cycle, Adam Parrish is connected to the forest of Cabeswater; the name Adam is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “the ground” or “the earth.”

Of course, I obviously don’t really know how or why Maggie Stiefvater chooses her character names. But hey; it’s a connection, and I’m definitely going to point it out! Also, she’s just amazing at naming characters, so I’ll definitely use a couple more examples from this series.

#2: Names that just sound cool

Whether it’s Zaphod Beeblebrox or James Bond, some names just sound cool. And a lot of the time, the sound and feel of these “cool” names can actually contribute to fleshing out characters! Zaphod sounds ridiculous, and that’s basically the crux of his character. James Bond sounds smooth and cool, and that’s also part of his characterization.

#3: Historical names and other namesakes

You can have a lot of fun naming your characters after historical figures. You can hint at future events, like with Seneca Crane in The Hunger Games. (Actually, a number of the government figures in this series are named after Roman Senators.) You can also use a well-known historical figure as a namesake to help with characterization; the best example I can think of is Napoleon is George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

You could also go for reworked character names in retellings, like with Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai in Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights. Even if you haven’t the book or you don’t know of the titular Shakespeare quote, it’s pretty obvious from the names what this is a retelling of.

#4: Names that fit

Then, of course, there are some names that just sound right. To start, the name could fit the character, like Richard Campbell Gansey III in The Raven Cycle. (Seriously, there cannot be a more perfect name out there. As I said, Maggie is a genius.)

Or, the name could fit the story or the context of the book. For example, L.M. Riviere’s The Sons of Mil is inspired by Celtic/Irish mythology, and the Sidhe characters have linguistically appropriate names. Similarly, although the world of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse is fictional, her characters have names that represent the varied locales that they come from.

#5: Names inspired by real-life

Of course, this one is a little weird. Unless you have explicit permission from the person, it’s probably best to stray away from naming characters after friends, family, or acquaintances. After all, you don’t want to accidentally offend the person (…and end up getting sued for ten trillion dollars). But hey; if your friend is down with it and the character isn’t the puppy-murdering, hateful antagonist of the story, this can make for a fun show of appreciation!

Actually, in doing some research for this post, I found out that there’s a technical term for this. Shocking, right? Apparently, it’s called “tuckerization,” after science fiction writer Wilson Tucker, who commonly did just this. I’ve never read anything he’s written; I added some to my TBR list, though, and I will in the future!

So, I hope you enjoyed this list! Of course, there are dozens of other ways to pick character names. And I would love to hear some of your go-to methods! Do any of them match with mine? Or do you approach this in a completely different way? Drop a comment down below and let me know how you choose character names!

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