What’s in a Name? How to Pick a Name for Your Character

It always amazes me where ideas for blog posts come from. Today’s post is a result of a conversation on Facebook with a friend who posted the result she received from nametests.com — something she plays far more than I do. However, periodically I get interested enough in the name games she posts that I click on the game myself just to see what they come up with. As usually happens with these things, I got a result that had no bearing at all in reality (not a necessity in these games apparently) and I posted my own results, indicating to her how the name chosen did not apply to my personality based on the meaning of the name.


  • Cheri’s Past Life
  • Name: Prudence Reeves
  • Year of Birth: 1727
  • Place of Birth: Vienna, Austria
  • Profession: Author
  • Death: Rescued children from a fire

Now, no one in their right mind would ever have referred to me as a prudent person. Ask anyone who knows me.

My friend idly wondered how many people actually choose a baby name based on the meaning of the name. Then, like the author I am (and apparently I was also one in the eighteenth century—go figure), I went into an analysis of why the name Prudence was inappropriate for any woman who was born in Austria in 1727. The comment thread got rather amusing as we tried to figure out how a girl named Prudence might come to be born in Austria at that time in history.

But the conversation got me thinking. How do writers pick the names they use for their characters, and why?

The fact is, a lot of fiction writers struggle over choosing the best name when creating characters for their stories. Being people who look for meaning in everything we read and actively layer subliminal meanings throughout our own work, having the right name for a character is as crucial as determining that character’s arc within the framework of the story.

Of course, some authors go to the easiest place on the planet for lists of names: the phone book. And while this is a great place to find names that are being used in the here and now, it doesn’t tell you much about the name. It doesn’t give meanings, origin or ethnicity for the names it lists. Therefore, if you pick a name that looks and sounds like it might be a Muslim name, unless you are Muslim or know a lot about the naming conventions for that faith, you really don’t know it is a Muslim name. Picking a Hebrew name by mistake could cause some problems for your readers who may very well be Muslim. Likewise, an author writing about Asian characters in a story needs to know that Chinese surnames are actually the name listed first. So while a female Japanese character named Setsuko Takamura would be referred to as Ms. Takamura, a female Chinese character named Lo Xiaoli would be addressed as Ms. Lo. Thus, you can see how important it can be to understand the sociological background of your character when choosing a name.

I began looking at naming rules about the time I first began writing at age 11. I had mentioned to an aunt of mine that I needed a way to determine good character names for my stories and she gave me a copy of a book she had purchased before I was born (and no, it does not include a section on dinosaur names) that listed the meaning and origins of names. It also listed variations of each name based on region, religious affiliation and historical time periods. It remains the best resource for names I have ever found. I would gladly list it here, but I’ve never found another copy of it anywhere.

The book, which is now out of print, also had a wonderful discussion on common rules for naming a child (click here for common naming rules  ). For example, choosing names associated with powerful attributes to hopefully influence the child to follow a life path of distinction (e.g., Rex, for those of us who are not logophiles, is the Latin word for king) might enable a child’s life path to end with him being a king, or at the very least marrying into royalty or becoming a powerful political figure. In addition, avoiding names and initials with negative connotations. I assume the latter was meant to ensure that the child would be less likely to be beaten up over an unfortunate combination of sounds or abbreviated letters (click here for examples of some poor name choices by parents. And be sure to read the comments for a good laugh).

The rule I found most arbitrary at the time was making sure that if the first name ended with a vowel, the middle and/or last name should start with a consonant to avoid the sound of the two names running together. Years later, while naming my own daughter, I chose two biblical names, Sarah and Elsbeth (the latter being a variation of Elizabeth), despite the vowel sound rule in the book, or perhaps just as arbitrarily because of it. I recall thinking at the time that spelling Sarah with the “h”on the end was technically adhering to the letter, if not the spirit of the vowel/consonant ending rule. And, since Sarah with an “h” was a very common girl’s name at the time my daughter was born, all the better. I grew up with a name that was in common use at the time, but that my mother, obviously adhering to the vowel/consonant name rule from that same book, chose to add a silent “e” between the final letter L of my first name and the beginning letter L of my middle name, creating a lifelong irritation of having to correct others’ spelling of my name and then explain the pronunciation on my first name, which always led to a discussion on exactly why my mother added the “e”in the first place! In naming my own child, I wanted to give her a unique name, yet not saddle her with the odd name conundrum I had lived with. I figured Sarah would be the safe, easy first name and Elsbeth the unique middle name. Problem avoided, right?

Wrong. Unbeknownst to me, there were a whole passel of other young mothers out there at that time spelling their daughters’ names as “Sara”. That spelling became the norm for her age group and has apparently has stayed that way ever since. Because I chose a common spelling at a time when the trend was going towards unusual, unique and simple spellings, my child ended up having to spell hers out just like me. On the plus side, she loved her middle name because of its unique spelling, and even went so far as to use the nickname Beth for a time while she was in college. In addition, when she had her children, she used common names with unique spellings, thus dooming my grandchildren to lives spent having to spell their first names out for everyone else. (Author’s aside to daughter: No, baby girl, this does NOT mean I hate my grandchildren’s names. I absolutely love them. I just needed an example for the post.)

By using this book I became fascinated in the etymology of names, the naming patterns in various societies throughout history, and choosing a character name based on personality, period and location of birth, social status and other personal characteristics became almost an obsession with me. I started collecting names I ran across in the course of my daily life and in the books I read that struck me as unique and interesting that might make a good choice for a type of character I might use in a story.

And this is where choosing a name as a writer is so very different from choosing a name as a parent. Whereas the dos and don’ts of naming children still apply to creating a character, writers, who basically study people and society for a living, often add layers to their otherwise two-dimensional characters by assigning unique background or historical details to them. While many of these details may never end up spelled out in the final version of a work, an author who takes the time to work up a detailed personality sketch for the more important characters in his/her work-in-progress finds it much easier to write those characters as three-dimensional people and make readers believe in them.

One of the easiest ways to build that character in the writer’s own mind is to use a name that gives evidence of the character’s personality. If nothing else, using a name that is in some way descriptive of the character helps the writer keep that character’s personality in the forefront of the writer’s mind as s/he plots the storyline.

Not only does a writer need to study the meaning of the name s/he chooses for a particular character, there are a number of other areas of background that should be incorporated into the character study.

Setting, time period and family background should all play a part in determining the character’s name.

For example, let’s say you have a male character, a detective, who was born, raised and currently lives in New York City, the melting pot capital of America. New York City is the spot where the majority of immigrants entered the United States. Many moved on as time went by, but a large number of immigrants stayed in the city and its environs. The typical trope of the Irish-American cop seems cliché, something all writers try to avoid and yet the trope exists for a reason. During the mid-nineteenth century, the Potato Famine and resulting social unrest in Ireland forced the emigration of many poor, mostly catholic, Irish to America in search of work and a better life. Many of the new Irish Americans found employment on the NYC Police Department and during the period of the 1850s to the 1950s the political machine known as Tammany Hall was largely controlled by the Irish Americans who swelled their membership rolls. However, Tammany Hall worked to better the lives of all the immigrants who came to New York, not just the Irish, so it would be reasonable to assume that in the twenty-first century the employees of the NYPD are (or will be) more genetically and culturally diverse.

So, I imagine my detective is the son of an Irish American cop (going back several generations). Therefore, I need to pick an Irish surname. Nowadays there are so many name sites on the internet that it’s more time efficient to google search Irish surnames than to look them up in books. My trusty old name book is on the verge to crumbling to dust, but I still tend to bounce the names I find online against my book. It simply gives me so many more options for spelling and cultural meaning than what you find on the various name websites on the Internet.

My online Irish surname search took me here: Irish surnames

In going down this list, there were several names that could work well for the character, but I am struck almost immediately by two similar names that fit the personality I envision. My character needs to be a strong, level-headed man with an inclination to protect those weaker than himself, a man who will stand his ground when pushed, but I don’t want him to struggle with his temper too much. Cool under pressure and able to fight fiercely when needed.

The first name in the list that drew my attention was “Connolly”, which means “fierce as a hound.” The second was “O’Connell”, which means “strong as a wolf.” Of the two, the imagery that resonates best with me is O’Connell. Hounds are loyal beasts, and definitely fierce when they go after their prey on a hunt or when protecting their family/pack members, but I am looking for a name that fits someone who is strong and steady, able to lead, coolly calculating, yet able to attack and kill when necessary and at a moment’s notice. I see those qualities more vividly in the image of a wolf, but I really like the concept of a man whose greatest characteristic is strength of character rather than ferocity. So O’Connell it is.

But then who was his mother? Was she another Irish-American? Or would she likely have been from another demographic completely? Let’s say her family originally came from Greece. My detective has the black hair and brilliant blue eyes of the true Gaels of Ireland, but the swarthy skin of his Mediterranean mother. His religious background is a combination of Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, though he personally claims neither faith. His mother was murdered in front of him when he was a child and this was the reason he followed his father into a job in law enforcement. He has yet to find the man who killed his mother, but finding the murderer is forever in the back of his mind as he goes about his daily work. I could pick another Irish name for him, but in a nod to his mother’s people I would like to bring out his Greek heritage. So I search for Greek baby names and got a link to the babynameguide.com.

Alexandros is a name of Greek origin, with other spellings that include Alexander, Alekos, Alexios, Alexis and derivatives such as Xander or Lysander, and which can be shortened to Alex, Al or Sandy. The names’s meaning according to the above site is “defender of mankind”, which fits perfectly with how I perceive this character. He’s not an attack dog; he’s a Defender with a capital “D”. To me this indicates a man with a softer inner core securely wrapped up in a strong leader with a focused mind. Since the story is set in America, I could easily name him Alexander or bring his Greek heritage purposely into the foreground by giving him the actual Greek form of the name. To make him more accessible to the readers of his tale, I will have him use the nickname of Alex. Use of the nickname could easily be seen as his way to play down the unusual combination of names. I can even use this nickname to put a bit of the author’s life into him. I mean, he could easily have the same aversion I have with having to spell his name to everyone.

So, now I have a basic character I can work with. Detective Alex O’Connell. I think I’m going to like writing about this guy.

Of course, he’s not remotely perfect yet. Every man has issues, and so will he. I can now add some more traits and experience into my character study of this man, but using his name as an anchor to his basic personality will keep who he really is in my mind’s eye as I write.

As a writer using today’s technology, it is super convenient to be able to do a quick google search for name lists and meanings. Just enter the kind of name you are searching for based on location, time period, religion, ethnicity, country, or whatever search parameters you choose. There are dozens of sites that can give you a list of names and their meanings. There are even sites that list names by fictional genre, especially for science fiction and fantasy. The Social Security Administration maintains a webpage that lists trending baby names and gives the popularity of the names based on decade. Disney hosts a website for baby names at www.babble.com. And babycenter.com provides an fairly informative baby name site at www.babycenter.com.

Personally, I prefer finalizing the character name with a well organized, well researched hardbound volume of names and their meanings, but beware. Not all name books are alike. For one thing, the majority of books out there advertise themselves by stating the number of names in their collection directly in the title, such as The Complete Book of Baby Names: 100,001+ Best Baby Names. With books containing such large lists of names, the meanings and origins have been minimized to the very basics.

As a writer, I like reading the historical significance of the names I am researching. Often the details given in the historical details can help an author chose a version of the name that is more historically or culturally accurate for the character and the story. Nowadays, though, these kind of books are rare.

The reason I so love my old name book is that the names were organized by the most recognizable form of the name in the United States, with alternate versions and nicknames organized according to origin, region, religious and language usage. It includes a synopsis of the name’s use throughout history, including famous people with that name.

Unfortunately, the books I have seen the most in recent years are basically just alphabetical lists with a very short blurb on the meaning, often limited to a one or two words, with absolutely no information on how the name was used historically or how it has changed over the centuries. In addition, most name books are paperbacks, not hard bound, and will deteriorate quickly over time with frequent use.

The great thing about living in the digital age is that you can get the same book online in a digital format, such as Kindle, iBooks, or Barnes and Noble’s Nook. In addition, local libraries now maintain vast ebook collections that make it easy to check out a book without buying it as long as you have a library card. Since I do my writing on my iPad, having an app that accesses my local library ebooks means I can download an ebook on any subject. My local library uses an app called Overdrive and since finding this app, I seldom need to actually go to the library to look for a book on any given subject.

Amazon.com lists a book actually organized by meaning. Baby Names Made Easy: The Complete Reverse-Dictionary of Baby Names by Amanda Elizabeth Barden. Here is the link for the kindle edition. While this is a great idea for making it easy to find a name appropriate for a character, the book still falls short in the historical/cultural information department.

If you want to really delve into the meaning of the names you are choosing for a character, I highly recommend going physically to a bookstore or library and compare the books side by side before choosing one. If you are at all like me, you may walk out with more than one book. But since when has any writer limited their reference library to one book on any given subject?

Happy Naming, everyone!