Choose a Name that Fits
People often make judgments based solely on an individual’s name—it’s a natural thing to do. You can use these stereotypes to your advantage—names can be an easy way to give a lot of information about a character without having to say very much. We assume Brutus is muscular, Aiko is a sweet Japanese girl, Chad is a jerk always on the lookout for a hot date, and Agatha is an old lady (or else a mystery writer). If you choose a name with even a moderate stereotype, this is bound to reflect on the character in your readers’ minds. Everyone has different associations with names based on their own experiences and culture, but there are some more universal typecastings. For example, the names Hillary and Britney are often considered excessively girly or even bratty and would likely be considered incongruent for a shy conservative girl. Of course, you could use this incongruence to make your story more interesting.
Be sure to do a quick Google search to make sure your name choice doesn’t have a strong prior association you don’t want, but also keep in mind that virtually any name you choose—unless you make it up yourself (and sometimes even then)—will have some celebrity or politician associated with it. So don’t let connotations weigh too heavily on your decision. For example, just because you name a character Justin doesn’t mean your readers will instantly think of Justin Beiber, whereas a name like Oprah or Elvis will undoubtedly cause the celebrities’ faces to pop up in readers’ heads. This is where it is important to keep audience in mind; for example, when I think of the name “Barney” the first thing I think of is a purple dinosaur, but an older audience might think of Barney Fife of Mayberry. Of course, you can also use names with heavy connotations to your advantage. Think how amusing it would be to have a character named Elvis who is constantly irritated with people commenting on his name and he wonders what on earth his parents were thinking when they named him that.
Keep it Realistic
If you name your character something unusual for his social class, time period, race, nationality, or storyverse, you better have a good reason. Keep time period in mind—a 17th century character isn’t going to be named Max and 21st century 90 year old lady is more likely to be named Mary than Mackenzie. Keep your story’s culture in mind as well. For example, an Elvish queen isn’t going to be named Taylor and average suburbanite isn’t going to be named “Morning Mist Alianette,” unless her parents are more than a little pretentious. A little creativity goes a long way. If you don’t want your character automatically pegged as a Mary Sue don’t use overly unique or creative names like “Krystoff” and “Jesikka”—leave that to suburbanite moms who think their kids are special. I guess what I’m trying to say here is only choose names that are super unique if you give an explanation—like your character’s parents wanted their children to stand out, named them after a significant event or person, or are obsessed with some fandom.
Nicknames for your characters can be fun and help make them unique and even more realistic. Maybe your character is always babbling and picked up the nickname Babs, or if your character is named Bartholomew Zane Smith, realistically his buddies would use a nickname like Barty, or just call him by his middle name. If you want to use a long fancy name it can become cumbersome and takes up a lot of space on the page and break up the reading flow, however you can still keep the fancy name if you refer to your character by a nickname most of the time.
Use Different Initials
You’re very familiar with your characters, some of whom you’ve known for years, but this is not so with your readers. Even the most attentive readers can get confused if you’ve got 15 characters whose named start with the same initial, like Alfo, Ada, Adrian, Armando, Alice, etc.
Sure, sometimes authors will use similar names for twins or siblings, like Tolkein’s Fili and Kili.
But let’s be honest, you still have a hard time telling all the dwarves apart, right? I can’t be the only one. So try to use different initials, and if you must repeat initials make sure you use the initials for characters of the opposite gender or very different personalities. Names that start with the same initial but are very different should be alright. For example, instead of using Ann and Annabelle use Ann and Adelpha.
A Word on Name Meanings
Let’s be honest. While it’s truly awesome to use a name that has a special meaning, the majority of your readers will have no idea what the root Latin word of the name is. If it’s a choice between a good name and a good name meaning, go with the better name. Formerly, I spent a lot of time looking up name meanings, but I’ve shifted to focusing on how the name itself sounds and what it will represent to the reader regardless of little-known root meanings. Go ahead and choose names that have great metaphorical significance and such, but remember that that might be something that only you and your hardcore fans know about (unless you mention the name’s meaning in the actual text of your story).
A Word on Fictional Universe Names
It can be hard to get in the mindset of an entirely different world and apply that to every detail, but that is one of the things that makes great world-building! It ads to interest and realism when names within your fictional races, cultures, and species have commonalities. Tolkien was a master at this by creating naming styles for each race in his story: Hobbit names were short and sounded almost like nicknames (Frodo, Bilbo, Sam), Elf names were elegant with emphasis on vowels (Galadriel, Arwen, Haldir), and Dwarf names are often short and similar to their family member’s names (Fili and Kili, Dori, Nori and Ori). By using naming conventions for each culture his story was far more realistic because in the real world different cultures favor certain name elements (example: Japanese names are often easy to pronounce and frequently use Ks Os and Is). It is also important to use names consistent with the world you are trying to portray. For example, names for a medieval fantasy storyverse should not sound too modern (choose William instead of Zack) while names from a futuristic story shouldn’t be too old fashioned (choose Zenia instead of Abigail). One last note: avoid names that are hard to pronounce and remember. As a test, have a friend try reading your names aloud and see if they struggle or pronounce the names the way you intended.
For Further Study:
Great for research and has a good name generator: behindthename.com
Name generators of all kinds: springhole.net/writing_roleplaying_randomators/namegens.htm
Simple but useful name generator: random-name-generator.info
First, please don’t hate me if I insulted your name, I do not encourage name stereotyping in the real world. Second, ultimately, it’s your story. Maybe you find it amusing to name all your characters with the same initial, or you want to name your suburbanite girl Morning Mist just because you like it. Do what you want. But do try keep your readers in mind if you plan to have a wider audience than family and friends and make sure that while you’re being creative you’re taking into account possible problems with your naming techniques.