Wednesday, November 1, 2017

How to Come Up with Names for the Characters in Your Book


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She had a podcast/vlog at www.StoryworldFirst.com. You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

*This is a Retro Rewrite of a post I wrote in 2013. I changed it up a little. If you want, you can read the original post here.

​How do you come up with names for the people in your books? Do you make them up on the spot? Do you name them after friends? Is there a better way?

There are lots of ways to find lists of first or last names for contemporary stories. I've listed some below. But what about historical stories? And what about fantasy or science fiction? Let's start by taking a closer look at earth's own history.

Ancient Methods
For some reason, many ancient cultures named their children whatever word came to them at the time of the child’s birth. Abraham named his son Isaac, which meant “laughing one,” because he and his wife were so old when the boy was born, they couldn't help but laugh. And when Rachel was in difficult labor, she named her boy Benoni, which meant “son of my sorrow,” but after her death, her husband Jacob renamed the child Benjamin, which meant “son of my right hand.”

With this method, names could be any word: nouns, adjectives, verbs, alone or combined, or even phrases. In Gaelic, Berach meant “sharp,” Ruadh meant “red,” Aisling meant “dream” or “vision,” and Fechín meant “little raven.”

You can find more examples from different countries in this brief history of surnames.

Prefixes and Suffixes
Names were also dithematic, which means that they were formed of a prefix and suffix. For example: Alfred means “elf counsel” because “alf” means “elf” and “rad” or “red” means “counsel.” Ben means “son of” in Hebrew. Bat means “daughter of” in Hebrew. I made use of that practice in my Blood of Kings books with the "mi" meaning "son of" in the giants' culture, for example, the name Jax mi Katt.

Check out this list on Wikipedia about German names. You can choose any two elements on that list and combine them to get a name. Then you’ll also get a meaning.  Look at the examples column in the center to see examples. Here are a few more I made up: Remwulf (PeaceWolf), Ernswint (HonorStrength), and Deganstan (WarriorStone).

If you were writing fantasy, you could create your own list of made up prefixes and suffixes that you could take from to create a feeling of uniformity in the names in your world.

Theonym, which comes from the Greek theos (god) and –onym (name), was a popular way of naming children in Norse times. Using the god Thor's name as an example, I came up with: Thorburn (Thor’s bear) and Thorleif (Thor’s descendant). If you have a god or gods in your novel, you could name characters after them.

Names Taken From Religious Texts
As Christianity spread, a trend developed to name children after martyrs (Stephen, Andrew, William, Dietrich, Agnes, Lucy, Cecilia) saints (Patrick, Therese, Francis, Clare, Christopher), or historic people of the Bible (Mary, James, Peter, Ruth, Naomi, Simon, and Benjamin).

Are there martyrs, saints, or famous kings or warriors in your novel? Why not name a character after one?

Bynames
Historically, bynames were literal descriptions of a person. This could involve one’s father’s name, for example, William had a son and named him Edward. So Edward's full name could have been: Edward William, Edward William’s, or Edward William’s son. See how that works?

Bynames could also involve the place a person was born or an occupation. For example, our Edward might be called Edward William’s until he’s a man, then he moves away from Harenton, the town he grew up in, and becomes an apprentice at a smithy. The people in his new town call him Edward of Harenton until he completes his training and becomes a master blacksmith. Then he might be called Edward the Smith.

Here are some other popular names that came from occupations: Abbott, Archer, Baker, Brewer, Carpenter, Farmer, Farrier, Potter, Weaver, Taylor, Thatcher, Smith, Swain (a swine herder), Weaver. The website Behind the Name is a great resource for names. Here is a list of surnames that derived from occupations. You can also filter your searches on this website by country.

Perhaps Edward’s father William still lives in the same house he grew up in, a house in a glen in the middle of a forest, so he is called William Forestglen. Some modern surnames that developed in such a way are: Atwater (at the water), Beckham (home by the brook), and Hill (hill).

Bynames might also be names of status or nicknames. Here are some examples to inspire you:
Marcus the Giant
Charles the Baron
Edward the Wifeless (Aww, poor Ed!)
Mary Burned the Barn (Forever labeled by her greatest blunder.)
Richard has Twelve Sons (I think someone is bragging.)
Bart Full of Ale (Oh, dear.)
Sarah Sings All Day (I hope her voice is good.)
Daniel Cut Purse (The lousy thief, anyway.)
Frank Waste Penny (Must have a shopping addiction.)

You can do all kinds of fun stuff with names in fantasy novels. You can create your own practices for giving titles or names, like in my Blood of Kings series, the guardians of orphaned children bestowed an animal surname on the child. You could also make up fictional titles based on occupations, like the Star Wars titles of Darth or Jedi.

So, think about the world you're creating. What historical Earth date does it parallel? How were names chosen then? Look back in time and see if you can come up with some fun ideas to help you name your characters.




Here are some more tips:

1. Find real names
Looking for interesting contemporary names? Start with baby name books and websites. (I highly recommend Behind the Name because some of those online baby name websites are all ads and no real information.) You can also look in old telephone books (if you can find one). You can look at Facebook profiles, on sports team rosters, or by perusing author names in the library. You can also make up fun names from nature, animals, colors, and from maps or your own country or foreign countries.

If you're writing a historical story, start by Googling historical names from the years your story takes place, then subtract the age of each character and look for popular names in the year each character was born. You'll likely find that some names were used throughout several generations. You can read novels that were written in the same year as your story or that take place in the same years as your story. You can also look up lists of names by historical event, for example, I looked up the passengers list from the Titanic. You can also browse name lists. Here are some of my favorites:

Unique Surnames
Fantasy Name Generator
Native American Names
Unique Baby Names
Generic English Place Names
Germanic Names
List of Titanic Passengers
Behind the first names, with meanings of names
Former names of islands
Finland map
Behind the surnames
Most popular surnames
List of Occupational Surnames
Medieval Surnames
Jewish surnames

2. Consider the evolution of names
Take for example the name Mary. Mary is the English form of the name Maria, which came from the Latin Mariam, which came from the Aramaic Maryam, which came from the Hebrew name Miryam. You can research the etymology of a name or create a logical etymology of your own that fits your storyworld.

3. Combine two or more real names
Combine two or more names to make something new. Emily and Grace become Emilace. Donald and Christopher make Donopher. Katherine and Louisa and Elizabeth become Katisabet.

4. Change the spelling of a real name or a word
Jill could become Jyl. Matthew becomes Methoo. Rainbow could become Rayneboh. School becomes Skuul. And take the word "hallelulia." From it we could get several interesting names: Hall, Hallay, Lelu, Lulie, Lulia, Layleeah, Ailule (going backwards), and on and on you could go.

You could also play around with names you made up. For example, if we played with the name Dasia, we might get: Dasiel . . . Dasielle . . . Rasielle . . . Raselle.

5. Create your own language
This tip always comes with a warning. Creating a language can be a trap that one might never escape. (See this post on how to create your own language.) If you do create some part of a fictional language, you could certainly make names from it. Not only that, you could create your own prefixes and suffixes, words for magic, creatures, or other storyworld elements, and use some of those as names.

6. Use name generators
If you’re totally stuck, try using a name generator. There are name generators for EVERYTHING! It's a little out of control. But they can sometimes be helpful. Either you'll find a name you like, or one of the names will inspire the perfect name. Here is a name generator I found for creating noble surnames. You can Google anything, for example: fantasy name generator, historical name generator, fairy name generator, creature name generator, mad scientist name generator, ghost name generator. I could go on and on.

7. Google is your friend
Google the name to see if it is already used in a famous novel. If it is but it’s a different genre, you can probably get away with it. But even if you were writing an Amish romance novel, I wouldn't use the name Katniss. It's just too recognizable. It's also wise to see if the name you chose isn't the name of a famous criminal or some other person who will come to the top of the search results when readers look up your character. :-O

If you've chosen to use something you found on a map of from another language, you should Google it to see if there might be any hidden meanings in foreign language translations. You don't want to accidentally name your hero something derogatory in another tongue.

8. Consider the meaning
It can be fun to give your character a name with a meaning that adds depth to the story. I did this with Hebrew words in the Blood of Kings books. For example, Achan means "trouble" in Hebrew. The man who raised Achan was making a point when he named him. Most baby name books and many websites will give you the meaning of a name. (Again, Behind the Name is a great place to start.)

Watch for "hidden meanings" that are too obvious. When you see the name Darth Sideous, it doesn't even sound nice, right? And what about Draco? If my name was dragon, I’d likely have a bad reputation without trying. In the book Finnikin and the Rock, the girl character Evanjalin is introduced and since the name is so close to the word "evangelist" instantly many readers wondered, "Hmm... Might she be the savior of her people? Might she bring good news?"  Be careful that some of your character names aren't story spoilers.

9. Check that first letter
Take a look at your full character list. Do you have too many names that start with the same letter? That is a great way to confuse your readers. Also check for names that rhyme or have the same amount of syllables. Switch out some names until you have a nice variety.

10. Keep it simple
I know, it’s difficult--especially when writing fantasy, but try to choose simple names. I made a mistake with my very first book in naming my hero Achan. I can't tell you how many people I've met that pronounce his name ah-chan, though I pronounce it ay-kin. I wish I would have put a short pronunciation guide in the front, but I promise you, a submission to a publisher that begins with a pronunciation guide will be treated as a red flag warning, so try to keep things simple. Take a look at this list of famous characters from fantasy and science fiction literature, film, games, and television. I can pronounce every one. Can you?

Agent Smith, Albus Dumbeldore, Aslan, Bilbo Baggins, Blade, Buck Rogers, Buffy, C-3PO, Captian James T. Kirk, Chewbacca, Data, The Doctor, Ellen Ripley, Emmet Brown, Gandalf, Han Solo, Harry Potter, John Carter, King Arthur, Leonard H. McCoy/Bones, Link, Logan 5, Luke Skywalker, Malcolm Reynolds, Merlin, Morpheus, Neo/Mr. Anderson, Q, R2-D2, Randall Flagg, Spock, Starbuck, Terminator, and Yoda.


So, say your names out loud. Are any of them at all awkward? Ask others to read them out loud. Did they stumble over any? Did they pronounce them right? Did you avoid adding unnecessary apostrophes (Sh’mal) and diacritics (Nüélmăr)? These are all good plans. Simply is often best.

Do you have any secrets or clever ways to coming up with great names? Share in the comments.

32 comments:

  1. I think some of the names in Harry Potter are clever. Sirius Black for example. Sirius is the dog star and Black is the color of his fur when he is in dog form.

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    1. It certainly depends on the genre and the audience. The Harry Potter books are written for kids, so it's fun that the names are like that. In an adult fantasy novel, though, it wouldn't work as well, imo.

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  2. This is a great post, Jill! I've been really bad about just making up names or using generic names without making sure they're historically or culturally accurate. Since my story deals with the lost colony of Roanoke, I'm now doing research to find some of the last names that would be on their new island.
    In creating a different culture in the same storyworld, I decided that "middle names" would instead be a person's military position. This reflects the military focus of the culture, gives me a title by which to refer to the characters, and adds mystery when the bad guy makes his first appearance in an area restricted to commanders but introduces himself without a rank.

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    1. Oh my word! One of the Roanoke voyagers had the last name "Fever." Naturally, I thought of my character named Scarlet. ;) Do you think I can get away with that?

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    2. I think that middle name plan is fun, Olivia. As to the Fever/Scarlet choice, I don't know enough of your story to advise you. I say trust your gut. :-)

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    3. I LOVE the Roanoke legend! Best of luck with your writing!

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  3. Finding character names is one of my favorite parts of writing!! (For some reason naming cities or countries is harder...) But I keep a list of names I come across or make up, so when a new character pops up, I can just skim the list to get a name!

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    1. I keep a list of potential character names too! =)

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    2. I do that too. It makes life easier sometimes. :-)

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  4. Great post! Finding the right character names can be difficult, but it's also fun! Thanks for these amazing ideas!

    - Madeline Joy
    towerofjoy.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm glad this was helpful, Madeline! :-)

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  5. Finding character names is so hard! I have a note on my phone where I randomly record names that I like when I hear or see them.
    For my current WIP, I used names of some acquaintances and friends. :)

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    1. I have a note on my phone too, Allison. :-)

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    2. Yeah, i have a note on mine too!! Wow, the names you get when you read the Bible (the Bible has tons in the genealogies) and I also tried using music once, and I got cool names like Harper, Celia (cello), Clarin, Dru (drum), Keyb lol that's a weird one(keyboard, Sitar, Viola. I know some of them are already names, but I think they're cute :D I also tried alphabet names, that was fun. Aych(H), Kyou(Q), Dobleu(W). Haha i just play around with a lot of fun things, maybe colour names, animal names, everything!

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  6. I really needed this post today! Random characters are working their way into my NaNo and I need to name them, so this really helped. I do just throw in temporary names sometimes, but a name can really affect my character's personality, so I usually take time to chose it.
    Also the generator you used for fantasy surnames is one I've seen before, and I went and explored it today. They have so many neat generators, and I was so excited to see "idiom generator" and "wisdom quote generator" and "Town description" - I know I'll be coming back to that site again!

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    1. How fun! I'll have to Google some of those. Do be careful not to get too sidetracked during NaNo, though. You've got a story to write!

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  7. I would pronounce Achan Ay-kin. ;p I don't really like it when authors name characters huge unpronounceable names. Seriously, when they do that I don't even ever know the characters names... I just visualize it and never try to say it. Brandon Sanderson seems to be the one person whose characters have long names that are great. I've found our recently that I mispronounce many of them, though ;) As I don't write fantasy I don't often deal with hard names in my books. With my historical fairy tale I did have some fun choosing names that were both accurate and pronounceble. I also like variety. When choosing names for that story, or any story, I usually like to use a baby name book (or google). I pick a letter then search for names starting with that letter. Then I choose another letter, and start searching for the next character name. I like to put a lot of research in what the name means, as I emphasize that a lot in my stories. A lot of times I'll have basic ideas of what I want my main characters to be named, or an idea of what I want their name to mean/ sound like.

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  8. It's funny- I never know where my names comes from. Most of the time they just kind of appear and proceed to slide onto the character like a glove. The only time I remember doing something to actually sit down and come up with a name was for one of my villains. He had a working name and it just wasn't doing it for me. So I sat down with a notebook and my copy of Tolkien's dictionary, and proceeded to glue together fitting roots of words until I came to a combination that sounded decent. Then I shuffled some letters around, and...yeah! My brain is very strange, tho.

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    1. Nice! I like it. I also might need a copy of Tolkien's dictionary. I didn't know there was such a book.

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  9. "Mary Burned the Barn" xD I love your examples of bynames - they'd add dimension to minor characters, and/or show what other people think of them, too! I should use bynames more often.
    - Jem Jones

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    1. I never used them much, either, but I think they would be fun. :-)

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  10. I have an interesting question. You may not have the answer, but I thought I'd ask. In my WIP, my villain's name is Pravus, which is the Latin word for "sinister, evil, etc." However, when I was in the early stages of writing it, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd heard that name somewhere. I Googled it and found out that there is actually a Darth Pravus in Star Wars. He was never mentioned in any of the movies, so I'm thinking he's just a fan-made character. But do you think it's okay to use that name since it comes from Latin?

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    1. It should be fine unless Darth Pravus is in an official Star Wars book or show.
      I'm a complete Star Wars geek and he is not even mentioned in the movies, so I would see if he is in a published book, and if not you could probably use Pravus as a name.

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    2. Ok, thank you! :D I will check to see if he's in any books or not.

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    3. Yeah, I think you're fine, Talia.

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  11. I like a name generator called Donjon, it has both sci-fi, and fantasy, and lots of sub-genres in each.

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    1. Thanks for the tip! I'll have to check it out. :-)

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    2. Thanks for the rec, Batfan! This is great.

      And thanks, Jill, for all the other sites and this post!

      God bless, Anne Marie :)

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  12. Thanks Jill this is great, I've always wondered about names...

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    1. My littlest sister's name is Keilah!!

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  13. Baby naming apps can be really great, but it depends on which one you look for. My favorites allow the user to search names by meaning or by country of origin.

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