The night was dark and moist. Lightning flashed over the castle. The great king…”
And suddenly the writing process stops. What should be the name of the character? George? Maybe Henry?Or are those too traditional? Maybe the character name should be very untraditional. King Martin Fleckner, perhaps?
If there is one place where writers tend to second-guess themselves, it is in the naming of their characters. You want a character name that you won’t misspell very often, but something that makes sense to the scenes and plot of your story. The name of a character is often how readers are first introduced to the primary players in a narrative and the wrong name can create the wrong first impression.
Sorry, King Martin Fleckner. It just isn’t going to work. Here’s how to name a character in a way that makes sense.
Names Matter More Than Many Writers Realize
Imagine that you give a Christian name like Jacob or David. This becomes a source of information for the reader. The natural assumption is that a Christian name is given to a Christian character. Many Christian names are also influenced by fashion and age, so there’s a lot that you can get wrong. You might have one picture for your character, but a reader can have a very different picture.
After all, David was a guy who killed one of his friends so he could sleep with the guy’s wife.
To avoid this kind of issue, many writers go to the other extreme. They do their best to create a name that may not exist in the world today – like King Martin Fleckner. Except – surprise, surprise, a Google search shows that there is someone out there by that name. Then the perception of the reader matches what the few people who have that unusual name happens to be and that may be contrary to what you had in mind.
So how do you find a happy medium between these two extremes?
How to Name a Character with Your Own Formula
The goal of a character name is that it should be realistic. It should be somewhat popular, but not so unusual that it stands out. And when you ask the average writer what kind of formula they use to create a character name, you’ll usually get an answer like this: “I don’t really follow a formula. The names just pop into my head.”
Not a lot of help there.
The easiest way to develop your own formula is to collect information about names. Some writers talk about watching the credits of a TV show or movie to pick out their favorite last names, then use family names to create a character. This creates a realistic name that can inspire the writer to create a foundational personality based on the person they know.
Others might search a baby name book for a first name that has a specific meaning which contributes to the story. An example of this might be the first name “Ronin,” which literally translates as “a wandering samurai who had no lord or master during the feudal period of Japan.”
You can also create a play on words based on certain meanings you want the name of a character to convey. Let’s use “Ronin” and “Fleckner” as examples here. We could transform “Ronin” into “Ronnie” and the “Fleckner” into “Flecks.”
Maybe Ronnie Flecks isn’t a good king name, but it could be a great name for a detective. Or, say, a Dutch producer.
What Can You Do to Improve Your Character Naming?
If you’re stuck on a name, then start creating names. Just let your creativity flow. Follow a formula, steal a name that you like, or just create one out of thin air. It’s all up to you. Once you’ve created the list of names, choose from the ones that you like the best and flow well with your story.
Then just add them in to see what happens. If you feel like it doesn’t help the story, then change the name. Keep changing it until you feel like the story has come out right.
Then, like any good author, once you submit your work, you’ll likely receive some feedback like this. “We really loved your story. It was engaging, entertaining, and provocative. Would you be open to making a minor change or two to the story – like changing the names of your characters?”
And so the battle to know how to name a character continues on.