How to write a great character name

Often what stays with me from a novel is less the plot and more the characters who move within it. I find that I remember who they are and how they act long after the major plot points have faded from my sieve-like memory, and that I think of them almost in the same way that I think of real people that I know. The other thing I notice is that the characters that I remember most vividly are usually those that have the most memorable names; names like Long John Silver, Holden Caulfield, Benny Profane, Ignatius Jacques Reilly and Anton Chigurh.

So what makes a good character name?

There’s a lot to consider. You’ll want your readers to be able to identify (and identify with) them quickly and easily, you’ll want them to be credible, but you’ll equally want them to be distinctive. And you’ve got to live with them for however long it takes you to grind out that manuscript, so you’d better like them too…

Get rhythm

Every name has to have its own rhythm. Short and punchy, long and languid, staccato, syncopated…it all contributes to the way a name “feels”.

I think that Anatoly Meliakoff, the eponymous protagonist of my short story “The Great Meliakoff”, is a decent example of this. To me there’s just something about the two four-syllable words – with their choppy, vowelly phonemes and bridging Y that falls satisfyingly between vowel and consonant – that just…well…fits.

It’s definitely more art than science, so a good thing to do is just to test combinations of names out loud. Say them, lift them off the page; try to get a sense of the rhythm of the words. It’s something that arrives more easily spoken than written.

Insert meaning

Perhaps you want to insert some secret meaning into the name, to which only you and other aficionados are party? If so, then Behind The Name is a great resource for this.

I took this approach many years ago for my first ever novel (which will never see the light of day…it was the novel that taught me how to write a novel). I gave the main character the name Deodato, which means “God’s gift”, and a secondary character the name Abejundio, which means “bee-like”. I found it oddly satisfying to give names that related to a character trait.

Add alliteration

One way to distinguish a character is by alliterating the first name and the surname, as J. R. R. Tolkein did with Bilbo Baggins (or even by outright repetition – Humbert Humbert, anyone?). Humans have evolved to be excellent pattern recognisers, so our brains automatically notice alliteration – making this a quick and easy (some might say cheap…) way to embed a character into the reader’s consciousness.

You might be dead against it – I am myself, as a general rule; it feels too ‘writery’ to me, so it jolts me out of the narrative – but you can’t argue that doubling up on initial letters increases the impact of a name.

Choose a name that isn’t a name

One thing that will make a character stand out is to give them a first name that isn’t even a first name to begin with. Places can be good (think more along the lines of Indiana Jones than something like Chernobyl Sinclair, though), as can surnames – imagine how prominent a character called Hildebrand or Wainwright or Keating would be.

Maybe not Cox, though, eh?

Alternatively, switch the gender (although for some reason while this generally works going from male to female, it doesn’t really work in the other direction…due to some latent machismo, perhaps). There’s a long history of men’s names becoming women’s names – John Wayne was born Marion Morrisson, for example – so if you want your female character to stand out, consider giving her a dude’s name. It worked for J. M. Barrie – Wendy was generally a male name until he wrote Peter Pan.

Use all the letters of the alphabet

Characters don’t exist in isolation. Unless you’re writing a very postmodern book, you’ll have a cast of supporting characters, and each one of them is going to need a name. We humans are simple animals, and our brains will take short cuts wherever possible, and with a range of names one way we do it is by simply remembering the initial letter (the initial letter also happens to be capitalised, so this makes it even more likely that we’ll fixate upon it). You can make things easier for your reader if each character’s name begins with a different letter.

Check yourself characters before you wreck yourself characters

Finally – and this shouldn’t need saying, but I’ve seen it even in professionally published books by established, experienced writers – names have to be appropriate. If you’re writing about an 18th century Spanish welder then “Paris Exocet” is not really credible. “Manolo Diaz” would probably be more betterer.


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