Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Creating Memorable Character Names

re-post by Susan
On I-75 in Cincinnati, Ohio, there's an exit for "Ezzard Charles Drive." My siblings and I always wondered how you could look at a beautiful newborn baby and name it "Ezzard." It sounds like "lizard."

Naming a fictional character may not be as momentous a decision as bestowing (or inflicting) a name on a small human, but it does take some thought. How do you find a name that fits the character, their story and world they live in?

A good character name might:

  • Evoke a time: Names fall in and out of fashion over time. You're more likely to find "Kayla" on her cell phone than on a prairie homestead. 
  • Reinforce the setting: Names are one of the details that make a setting more real, more believable.
  • Shape a character: A unique name might be a source of embarrassment or pride throughout the character's life.
  • Have meaning: In addition to being a Biblical name, "Noah," means "rest, comfort." My own (Susan) means "lily," which does not describe me one whit, one bit. Even if the reader doesn't know the name origin and meaning, you will.
  • Sound good: Say the name a few times. Does it roll off the tongue? A friend of my sister's was going to name her baby "Jack Hess" until she started saying it to herself. 
Where to generate a few name ideas? Here are a few sources:
  • Social Security Administration Baby Names: Good source for historical fiction to set your story in a specific year. This site has the 1,000 most popular baby names by year back to 1880. 
  • Behind the Name: Fantastic source. Many tools on this site, including the ability to generate names appropriate for specific nationalities and lists of most popular names from other countries. Need a name with a "canine" feel? Try their themes page.
  • Random Name Generator: English names only, but you can bulk-generate them up to 100 at a time. 
Looking around, I spotted more good advice on character names on NaNoWriMo and wikiHow.

As for Ezzard Mack Charles, he turned out to be a professional boxer and World Heavyweight Champion. I have no idea if his given name had anything to do with his chosen profession. I'll let you write that story.

Photo attribution: By Czesław Słania (English Wikipedia: [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Ezzard Charles, in a private engraving by stamp engraver Czesław Słania. It is #16 in his series of world champion boxers engraved in stamp format. The stamp has only been produced privately and the text USA, is there to show Ezzard Charles' nationality.


  1. Great points! A girl named Kayla or a boy named Kayden would be much less believable in a story set in 1890. Names do matter!

    1. I feel like I'm naming children when I give my characters names! Although with children, you can't rename them when they're 3 and they turn out to totally be not a Kayla. I've found myself renaming characters as I write more of the story and learn more about them.


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