Naming your characters doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly complicated. (Cue the stereotypical Shakespeare quote here.) Some writers spend days upon days researching the etymology of different names and words for their characters. It’s totally OK if you don’t find names the same way.
However, you should put at least a little work into naming your characters. The kind of names will, for obvious reasons, have vast differences from genre to genre — such as high fantasy versus contemporary romance.
Here are some things to consider when it comes to naming your babies. …I mean characters.
- Heritage/Time period/Geographical/Background
I’d like to believe that taking your character’s background into consideration for a name would be a self-explanatory step, but… no, it’s not. No matter the genre, some names are completely out of place. A reader will be completely thrown off by stumbling across a character named “Billy-Bob” in a medieval fantasy, or “Caligula” and “Eudoxia” in a contemporary romance that takes place in Podunk Town, Missouri, unless, of course, there’s a damn good reason for it.Your character’s name should make sense with the story and with their own background. Research common names for that time period (or, if it’s a more contemporary story, you can research the most common names for the specific year your character was born in).
- Readability and Pronunciation, Same First Letter
Avoid names that have difficult spellings or pronunciations. Also, avoid having two character names that start with the same letter. It’s harder for our eyes to differentiate two names in the same scene that start with the same letter.
Stay away from odd/weird/”hip” spellings of common names. It only makes it harder on your reader.
- Contrived names, obvious names
Some writers like names that sound clever or cute or witty, like naming a wise, old man Sage, or a peace-keeping girl Serenity. Depending on the story, they may sound contrived and come off as corny. Keep your genre and target audience in mind — what sounds goofy for an adult romance may work well for a YA novel.
This isn’t to say that names derived from everyday words can’t work. A clever name, however, won’t make your character memorable. A well developed, fleshed-out, sympathetic character is memorable.
It’s good to have a rough idea of who your character is before picking out a name. If you decide to start writing first, use a placeholder, such as [NAME], instead of a temporary name. It’s harder to go back and change from a temporary name, as you may get used to it.
Baby name resources, from websites to books (besides writers, does anyone even buy baby name books anymore…?), are your best friends when it comes to names. Here are some links to helpful resources!
Behind the Name — Offers the etymology and meaning behind thousands of names. You can even search by language, country, or even Biblical and Medieval names.
2000-Names.com — Another great resource with thousands of names, searchable by region/language/time period/etc.
BabyCenter — Good if you’re looking for a name that’s more contemporary or modern. They have some cutesy categories, such as Old fashioned and Nature.
Social Security Administration (SSA) — This is your best resource to search the most common or popular names by year or decade (for the US, at least).
Two additions for Fantasy and Sci-Fi writers, thanks to Matt (be sure to check out his blog and writing!) :
donjon — Gives a few options to create different combinations for name generation.