Naming characters is as easy to overthink as naming an actual child. But at least with an actual child, you only need to pick one name. Writers have to name dozens of characters: that child’s friends, mentors, antagonists, and any random person they have to meet.
So you need to start somewhere.
Often the best place is to look at the world and genre of your story, then focus on the kind of relationship you want the audience to have with the characters’ names.
What’s the world of your story?
A realistic world
If you have a story set in a modern, realistic world, you can narrow down your search using databases with historical records.
The Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Names search lets you look at the most frequently registered names by birth year. The Name Age calculator lets you search in the opposite direction, entering a name to see when it was most popularly used.
Tie this in with baby name sites, and you’ll start to generate a sense of what names are believable based on your characters’ ages. You can also check to see if an infrequently used name is at least believable for the time period you’re considering.
Genealogy sites and historical records of individuals can also give you some ideas for names if you want to go back even further in time.
You’re not just telling us about individuals with their names, but also the story’s setting. Character names in imagined worlds help lay the groundwork for the whole culture you’re focused on.
What does that culture value? Do they focus on discrete family lines — with patrilineal or matrilineal naming conventions — or do they have some other sense of community?
Think about real-world analogues to the world you’re building, something the audience may be familiar with.
- Which comes first: given name, or surname?
- Are there even given names or surnames at birth? Maybe the society or the individual picks the name later based on certain traits or accomplishments.
- Is it a culture where the given name of a parent becomes the surname of the child? (e.g. Lars Johansson)
- How prevalent would a given name be? Do most kids get a common name, or is there an emphasis on uniqueness?
- Who gets to assign names to children? Do they keep that name for their entire life?
Answering these questions with support from a real-world analogue can help to keep you from over-worldbuilding. You shouldn’t need to fill fourteen notebooks with a fictional linguistic system and complete genealogy of your world just to name your hero.
The further you move away from the world the audience lives in, the more you need to explain to them about how this new world works. So think about tweaks on existing naming conventions rather than wholesale inventions.
What should the name reveal to the audience?
Names revealing backstory
Who gave your character their name? What was the intent of that person?
Take yourself out of the equation for the moment, and consider if there’s some history to the character and their family that might help you to select a name.
Is the namesake a distant relation with whom the parents wanted to curry favor? A family friend? In honor of someone important to the lives of their parents? A name given to them to shake things up, or to separate them from the traditions of the past?
By putting yourself in another character’s shoes when naming the character, you can take a little of the pressure of finding the “perfect” name for your character, and think about how people are realistically assigned a name.
Names with Authorial Intent
Lots of baby name sites, or places like behindthename.com allow you to search based on the meaning of a name.
Whether you want to use name for its direct meaning, or pick a name that acts as an ironic counterpoint to a character, you can use this knowledge to help you express something about the character’s inner life through their name.
Sometimes a reference to another story can give your audience a sense of your influences, or just subconsciously prime them for the type of story they’re in for.
For example, from a thread unpacking the different references in the character names from Twin Peaks comes this quote from David Lynch explaining how one of those references fell into place.
“The name Gordon Cole comes from Sunset Boulevard—in the film he’s the man from Paramount Studios who starts calling Norma Desmond about renting her car. People come up with names in different ways, and when I was thinking about Gordon Cole I said to myself, Wait a minute. Driving to Paramount, Billy Wilder passes Gordon Street and he passes Cole Street, and I’m sure that’s where he got the name. So the character I play in Twin Peaks is named in honor of Hollywood and Billy Wilder.”
This doesn’t mean you should name a character “Michael Corleone,” “Holly Golightly,” or “Holden” and consider it nothing more than a knowing wink to the audience. But a callback name can set the tone you’re looking to create for a genre savvy audience.
Once you’ve narrowed down where you want to search for names based on your story’s world and intent, you can make a shortlist and draw from that.
And if you get stuck, remember the words of Stan Lee when he described why he used alliterative names for his heroes:
“It would be hard for you to believe this, because I seem so perfect: I have the worst memory in the world, so I finally figured out, if I could give somebody a name, where the last name and the first name begin with the same letter, like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Matt Murdock, then if I could remember one name, it gave me a clue what the other one was, I knew it would begin with the same letter.”
In the end, the best choices feel right and are easy for you to remember. Doing the work can help you get there, but there’s no perfect science to a perfect character name.