One of my favorite things about writing fiction is creating characters with the perfect blend of quirks, faults, and talents. I can take all of my favorite traits and cram them into one person. Then, however, I have to name them.
It sounds easy enough – pick a name. Right? Not quite. Similar to naming your child, you want to put some thought into the characters your readers will (hopefully) remember and talk about. This isn’t a science, and there’s no magic formula for picking the right name. There are, however, some things to consider before saddling your characters with an inappropriate or difficult-to-remember moniker.
- Keep it historically accurate. These days you’ll find a plethora of unusual spellings for common names. In the 1800s, however, you wouldn’t have run into a Cady or Caty. Catherine would be shortened to Kate, Cate, or Katie. Similarly, if you’re writing a contemporary novel, you’re unlikely to have a grandma named Riley.
- Avoid alliteration. The more characters you have in a novel, the more difficult it is to remember their names, especially if they all start with the same letter. It might work if you have a family who uses the same letter when naming their children (if you handle it well), but having Mark, Mike, Matt, Michelle, Mandy, and Mindy can confuse your reader. Try to keep the names as distinct as the characters.
- Google it. Search for “Most Popular Baby Names” (add a specific year for your historical novel), or look for a baby-names website. Once you’re there, look around. You can search for names by ethnicity, definition, or gender (though many names cross gender lines, with many seeming to have switched popularity from one gender to the next). Suppose you can’t think of a good name, but you know your hero is witty – search for witty (or cunning or other similar words) and see what the site suggests.
- Consider your setting. If you’re writing a speculative fiction novel set in a made-up universe, however, Bob might not be the best option for you. I write contemporary fiction set in rural Michigan, so I stick with popular, conservative names. If, however, I wrote military suspense, I’d be more concerned with last names. If I set my novels in Central America, I would need to find culturally-appropriate names. Just like the character names should be historically accurate, they should be setting-appropriate.
These are a few suggestions to help you find the right names for your characters, but please don’t stress about it. If the names aren’t quite right, there’s a good chance your beta readers, agent, and/or editor will give you some suggestions or ideas. Doing name research can be fun, though, so why not play around? Try out a few names to make sure they work well for your characters and your story.