Zooming through character names

I always find it odd when I see writers talk about naming characters.  It’s usually a fairly labor intensive process, involving many resources and sometimes determining the meaning of the names.  In fact, I used to do something similar.  I’d go through a baby name book, pick six or seven names, then start eliminating them to get the one I want.

Then I wrote a novel with 30 characters, and that changed.  I could not do that on each and every character.  It would have taken forever.  During that book, it was slap a name on a character on the spot and done.

I think it hit me then that most readers aren’t going to notice or care that I spent a lot of time picking it for just the right reason.  They’re going to be more interested in the story and what the characters do in the story.

Though I’ll admit, even with my original process of picking names, I never got why writers picked names based on the meaning of the name.  If it was important in the story, it was going to be lost on a lot of readers who weren’t going to know unless it was explained in the story.  I mean, what reader drops reading a novel, rushes to a baby name book to check the meaning, then goes back to read?  Might be .001 percent of the readers?

Now the naming process looks more l like this:

First name: I flip through a baby name book.  I’ll try the G’s today.  Quick scan.  There’s one.  That one will work.

Last name:  Depends on the ethnicity of the character.  I hit a newspaper or the obituaries of the setting to see what I can find.  Pick one.  Done.

7 thoughts on “Zooming through character names

  1. Great post! I’ve always had trouble picking names for characters, never liked the baby-name-meaning method. I try to find a name that sounds authentic to the character. But I think you’re right, most readers don’t think twice about names, they just read right on past them.

    Though I love your way of choosing last names, I’ll have to remember that one!


  2. Cat Lumb

    Sometimes my characters pop into my head with names attached. If my book ever goes to a publisher and they say – change the names of ‘Madeline’, ‘Penelope’ and ‘Lawrence’ – I don’t think I could. It’s who they are!
    I also gave a secondary character a name, but when writing a separate section didn’t think she’d ever been named before…so I plucked a name out of the air; it was the same one!
    However, I have to say I spent two hours searching for ancient cultural names linked to elements for my second novel…it just felt right. Sometimes, it’s more for the author than the reader i think.


  3. I’m writing historical fiction based in 12th century England and the Holy Land. I find it a bit more difficult to come up with names – look at Magna Carta – Hugh, Roger, Henry, John, William, Robert, Richard, lather rinse repeat. I end of scanning the Domesday Book frequently. 🙂


    1. Maybe you could try nicknames for some people. In the army, we had two sergeants with the same last name, and they became Sergeant Jones E-6 type and Sergeant Jones E-5 type (which was better than by appearance: Tall Sergeant Jones and Short Sergeant Jones). People will come up with differentiating names for people with the same names.


  4. Pingback: Logistics, logistics: Naming and dating characters | Write on the World

  5. Writing high fantasy, I have a lot of leeway with my names, but I made a naming-conventions file for myself so that I could have internal consistency in the various kingdoms. Some places use certain letters more often, some don’t use certain letters at all, some have a variance in gender suffixes, et cetera. Makes it easy to smack together a random name on the fly.


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