Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Name of the Game: Naming Your Characters

The Name of the Game: Naming Your Characters
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman

What do Scarlett O’Hara and Holden Caulfield have in common? They are the names of memorable characters. It is your job as the writer, of course, to create a memorable character, but selecting the right name can aid the process. The trick is to give your characters names that are interesting and unusual without tagging them with a moniker that sounds silly or awkward. How do you do this? You can begin by thinking about the origin of names. All names—whether they are first names or surnames—are influenced by ethnicity, celebrity/popularity, ancestry, appearance, or occupation.


In ancient times, people had no designated surnames. If there was a need to make a distinction, they were referred to by their occupation, their residence (or place of birth), or their relationship to another person or thing. For example, John the Baptist identifies John as a person who practiced a ritual immersion (baptism) for his followers. Mary Magdalene takes the surname of her hometown. Hebraic names, in particular, often created surnames from relationships. The word “bar” means “son of.” Hence, a name such as Jacob bar Jonah means literally “Jacob, son of Jonah.” This practice of using “son of” to identify a person later evolved into creating actual surnames that have been passed down over generations. “John’s son,” for instance, became the name, “Johnson,” a surname still in use today.

Surnames also show a strong ethnic influence. If you look in the phone book of any small town (an excellent resource, by the way), you will often see a preponderance of surnames indigenous to the area. I grew up in the southwestern United States, a place with a large population of Native Americans and Hispanics. The surnames of “Tsosie,” “Begay,” and “Padilla,” are common in my hometown. However, since they are primarily isolated to a specific region, they become memorable when used for a story with a broad reading audience. If you want to place your story in a particular locale, take a close look at the local residential pages to see what ethnic groups dominate the area.

You can also create your own surnames by combining everyday words with an appropriate prefix or suffix. The name, “Chiselton” could be an excellent choice for the last name of a con man since “chisel” is a slang term for “to cheat.” A good thesaurus is an excellent resource for creating surnames that sound real. Just be careful that you don’t choose the obvious, such as “Barman” for a pub owner.

First Names

Although first names are often influenced by ethnic origin, they are also inspired by the person’s appearance or by popularity. Many first names (and nicknames) refer to a person’s appearance or character. The name, “Alan,” comes from the Celtic, meaning “handsome.” Nicknames such as “Red” and “Akako” (Japanese for red) could both refer to the color of a character’s hair. The Puritans were particularly fond of giving their children names of virtues they felt they should possess. “Silence” and “Temperance” were popular for girls, while “Justice” and “Proper” were favorites for boys.

Almost every generation has had trendy first names that have waxed and waned over the years. My grandmother was named “Frances,” with the nickname of “Fanny,” a once-popular name that now has the slangy connotation of referring to a person’s backside. In the 1930s, thousands of little girls were named “Shirley” after Shirley Temple. Today, you will rarely find that name in the classroom. The 1960s saw a rise in popularity of “John” and “Jacqueline” after President Kennedy and his wife. In the 1980s, there was a swing back to Biblical names for both boys and girls. The obituaries are a great resource for first names and can provide insight into what was popular during a particular generation.


The use of initials can be a useful substitute for a first name if you want your character to seem powerful or mysterious. For example, if you have a female private eye, the name “T. J. Roberts” sounds much more forceful than “Teresa Joan Roberts.” If your character is a powerful politician or a corporate magnate, the use of initials could indicate that he’s so important people don’t need to know his first name; his initials are good enough. The famous J.P. Morgan is a perfect example of this. Finally, some authors feel that the use of initials imparts an air of mystery to a character. If this is your goal, you may want to keep the reader guessing by never revealing what the initials stand for.

Naming Don’ts

Don’t combine first and last names that rhyme or sound alike. Most readers find this annoying. Example: Jack Stack.

Don’t give your characters names that are impossible to pronounce. This is often a common problem in fantasy or science fiction when an author decides to be clever and give a character a name without any vowels. Example: Grrwkd. The reader spends the rest of the story choking on the word.

Don’t use a person’s real name! If you find a last name you like, use a different first name and vice versa. Never, ever, use the name of a real person, as you open yourself up to charges of libel and/or defamation of character. It’s also a violation of privacy.

Don’t use similar first or last names for different characters. Three characters with the names of Jack, Jacques, and John become confusing for the reader.
Don’t switch back and forth between a character’s first name and last name. If the character goes by his last name, then be consistent and use the last name every time he’s mentioned.

Don’t make first and last names of equal length. If you have a short first name for your character, give her a longer last name. Mix things up a little.

Don’t give your character a full name with initials that spell out an embarrassing word. Georgia Alice Garrison may be a lovely name for a Southern belle, but G.A.G. is not quite so attractive.

Resources for Names

Residential pages of phone books
Baby naming books
Names from spam email (You will find some interesting combinations here; just don’t open the spam!)

Who’s Who in the Bible (Reader’s Digest Books)
(contains the first names for boys and girls for countries from around the world)
(This site has a wonderful random name generator that can help you brainstorm some very creative combinations.)
(Over 22 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954. The databases at this site have records on almost all of them.)
(an excellent resource for surnames and their origins)

So, before you label your character with any Tom, Dick, or Harry, stop and think about who he is. Where does he come from? What does she do? What does he look like? What kind of image do you, the author, want to project for your character?

Happy writing!

Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.

Visit Ms. Gassman at her website:

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1 comment:

Joylene said...

Good excellent resources. The history of names is fascinating. My family, way back when, were gardeners; hence: Desjardins. One can only guess what my husband's family were: Butler.

Can't tell you how many times I choked over the author's choice of a name for his protagonist. This is good sound advice and I will check out the links. Thanks.