When you’re writing a story, the characters that you create are key ingredients – and an important part of creating great characters is to have brilliant character names.
Sometimes names can be plain, sometimes they can be funny, and sometimes they can be meaningful – but every name you choose has to be memorable for the reader. The best way to do this is to make sure the name reflects your character so that they stand out in the reader’s mind.
When you’re choosing a name, you can consider your character’s physical appearance, but also think about their internal traits – are they kind or cruel, happy or grumpy, thoughtful or thoughtless? Sometimes the name will reflect one of these aspects, but it can also reflect both.
For instance, I chose the name Ebony Smart for my main character in The Book of Learning because ‘ebony’ is a type of strong, dark wood. As a name, it represents 1) the way my character looks with her wild black hair, and 2) her personality, because she tries to make the right choices and overcomes lots of obstacles.
So what do you need to consider when you’re creating character names, and where can you get some ideas and inspiration?
What does your name say about your character?
Plain Names: These are particularly good when there is lots of crazy stuff going on around the character. Roald Dahl was brilliant at making plain names memorable; think of James and the Giant Peach, or Charlie and the Chocolate factory. In both instances, the stories are imaginative and memorable, even though the character names aren’t very exciting. J.K Rowling had lots of fantastical names in her books, but the main star, Harry Potter, had a very straightforward and simple name. To me, this made it even more exciting when magical things started happening to him.
Funny Names: Make people laugh and they’ll definitely remember your characters! Names can be funny because of the way they sound, such as the Twits (Roald Dahl), or Gertrude McFuzz (Dr Seuss). Sometimes they can be funny because the name adds to personality traits, like Mr M’Choakumchild – a mean schoolteacher in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. But also, the name can mean the opposite of what the character is like; calling a tiny character Lofty, for instance.
Word Play – sometimes, using your imagination is best, and you can create names from words that match your character. For instance, if you have a character that is very unlucky, Unwin might be a good surname. Or if your character is always complaining, their name could be Grouch. A great example of this is Madame Octa (a play on Oct meaning eight), the spider in Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak.
Where can you get ideas?
There are many places you can look for inspiration. Here are a few suggestions:
People you meet – I had one name missing from The Book of Learning when I moved to West Cork. The first day in my new home, I went for a walk and met a neighbour. He shook hands with me and said, “Hello, my name is Cornelius.” It was exactly the name I’d been looking for!
Baby name books – These usually give you the meaning behind the name also, so it helps you choose names that suit your character’s personality. You can look up baby names for countries all around the world if you’re looking for something more unusual or exotic.
Science & objects – Observing and learning about the world around us can help to create names. For instance, Sirius (Black) in Harry Potter is based on the brightest star in the earth’s night sky.
Myths and legends – There are some wonderful mythological names that you can adapt. The legend of Icarus is one of my favourites, so I used it for one of my characters. Look at myths and legends from around the world for some inspiration. Artemis (Fowl) is based on an Ancient Greek hunting god.
Graveyards – Sometimes you can find some weird and wonderful names on gravestones. Usually, I separate out the forenames and surnames, and mix them up to create my own combinations.
Newspapers & magazines – Look in the adverts as well as the headlines; names are everywhere in the news and you never know when you’ll stumble across something new or exciting.
Other languages – Words in other languages, both ancient and modern, might spark an original and memorable name.
History – Did you know that Count Dracula was based on a Romanian prince called Vlad the Impaler? This prince’s father was nicknamed ‘Dracul’ (meaning Dragonlord) because he was a special knight of The Order of the Dragon. When Bram Stoker found this out, he amended it to Dracula for his vampire character.
Some favourite character names…
These are just a few of my favourites – feel free to add your own in the comments below.
- Frodo Baggins (Lord of the Rings)
- Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter)
- Fagin (Oliver Twist)
- Phileas Fogg (Around the World in 80 Days)
- Artemis Fowl (Artemis Fowl)
- Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
- Stanley Lambchop (Flat Stanley)
- Slinky Malinki (Slinky Malinki)
- Pantalaimon (His Dark Materials Trilogy)
- Veruca Salt (Charlie & The Chocolate Factory)
- Ebeneezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol)
- Severus Snape (Harry Potter)
- Miss Trunchball (Matilda)
- Wilbur (Charlotte’s Webb)
Hopefully, this post has given you some help with your character names. But as we all know, no two writers are the same, and we’re always learning. So, if you have any more tips on creating great character names, let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear them!