How do we come up with names for fictional characters?

If you think about it, the average novel will introduce about 20 or 30 different characters – from the hero or heroine (and their closest friends/family) right through to all the people they need to encounter in the various twists and turns of a story.

So where does an author start the naming process?

We all do it differently, but put no less thought into coming up with names that roll off the tongue, stay memorable for the reader, and somehow capture the character we’re writing about.

Lee Child’s engrossingly enigmatic MP wouldn’t be the same if he wasn’t called Jack (just call me) Reacher, and how did Stephen Leather take an everyday kind of name like Dan Shepherd and make it resonant through a gripping series? In the latter case, Leather’s use of the nickname ‘Spider’ provided an easy alliteration that we, as readers, instantly buy into.

So where did the names come from? The secret might just be as basic as authors playing about with a list until they get one they like. By building a great character (and great stories) around the chosen names, they hope to succeed in getting the reader to identify with the overall concept in such a way that the name remains with us. Obviously, it helps if you’re a prolific author who constantly finds interesting stories for your character and therefore builds the brand through the series.

Many authors use the names of friends, either in full or by coming up with a subtle derivative. This helps not only to prepare a nice long list but also makes it easier to describe characteristics and traits if the actual person is always on the mind when writing about their fictitious alter ego. Not much good if your friends are plain John Smith (with apologies to all John Smiths)!

There are also some pitfalls to be avoided.

Let’s say an author picks a name for a character who is an eminent surgeon with a private practice in a particular city and you attribute some unsavoury or unprofessional actions to the character. Where would the author  be if such a professional with that name actually existed? Unlikely? Pick a name at random, Google it and see what happens! You’ll be surprised.

By the way he or she doesn’t have to be a surgeon – the same applies to any profession, including police officers, who figure most in popular fiction.

Our literary forefathers could delve into the realms of the surreal to come up with tasty bites like Robinson Crusoe or Wilkins Micawber. And you really had to be there to understand the mind of PJ Wodehouse when he gave birth to Bertie Wooster, Watkyn Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle and Tuppy Glossop!!

The process, however, could be as simple as the choices faced by all parents when picking a name for their child, although in this case they have half the job done for them. There’s not much they can do about the surname but just think of the tizzy they get into trying to come up with a first name that “sings” to them when they bolt it on. The modern writer has to find both halves of the equation!

And perhaps the secret is as simple as that. Start with one half – either the first name or the surname – and then try to find a match. It would be interesting to know if Child decided first on Reacher and then added Jack, or was it the other way round?

When all’s said and done, the readers are the people who decide whether the choices we make are appropriate. So why not ask the readers? In these days of social media it would be an interesting experiment for authors to Facebook or tweet their friends/followers/fans and ask them to submit possible names for particular characters. I can just see a typical post – I’m writing about gangland criminals in London and have decided to include twins by the names of Ronnie and Reggie. Does anybody have a suggestion for a surname??

This blog is being recreated here for the purposes of keeping my records up to date. It was first posted as a guest blog on the sites of fellow authors Cathy Brockman and Scott Bury. I’m grateful to them for inviting me into their online homes. Check them out at the following links:

Scott Bury
Cathy Brockman

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2 Responses to How do we come up with names for fictional characters?

  1. Hermine Strand says:

    The origin of some names is not difficult to understand. I once read a bedroom farce featuring a character named Mrs. Loveit, and I doubt I need to draw you any pictures about that. But the truly effective names are, as you say, those that resonate and stay with the reader, and quite often fit the work they appear in. You very correctly point out that finding such names is part art and part science. Asking readers for a character name sounds like a good idea, but my readers will never be burdened with that responsibility unless they volunteer a name without my asking them. Then they would get mentioned in the acknowledgements if I used the name they had suggested, although there might be intellectual property issues. Regards.

  2. P.I. Barrington says:

    Joe,
    Half the time at least, the characters tell me their names! My inspirations come from everywhere (i.e. Isadora DayStar, DayStar came from a religious broadcasting network and I thought it would be a great name for a sci-fi character-voila!) and I also have numerous baby names books to rifle through…but mostly they tell me their names.

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