The Worst Decision Ever … Choosing Your Characters’ Names

We’ve all had to do it. Every writer has to face the harrowing decision of what to name the person about whom you have been writing for an absurd amount of time.

Usually the main characters of a story that is particularly close to your heart and soul are easy to name. Laura and Thomas have been Laura and Thomas for ten years (although for nine of them he was just Tom). But there are others in that story who have altered close to five or six times throughout the course of the writing process.

For example, Laura’s brother. First his name was Lance. Then Lance Armstrong left his wife for Cheryl Crowe so my character’s name became Shawn. Then I hated that when someone made fun of it (for whatever reason I have since forgotten) and I named him Jonathan. But Lance was still pulling at the back of my mind so now Laura has two brothers, one named Lance and the other named Jonathan.

Thomas’s closest brother has been renamed a few times as well. First he was Craig, then he was Shawn. I then altered his name to Tim, but Tim and Tom sounded like little villages waifs from eighteenth century England and that would not do. A few years ago Tristan and Isolde came out in theaters and the brother became Tristan, but the two T’s for twins didn’t work for me.

Long story short, it’s a very important decision, even for minor characters. You can have created the greatest character of all time. but if you choose a silly name no one can take seriously (unless you have done this purposefully to make a point which is addressed in your story), your readers will take longer to warm up to the character. I know it’s wrong, but it’s true. People form opinions from the second they begin your tale. Those opinions could change, but who wants to leave a bad first impression?

Minor characters names are all well and good and must be taken completely seriously, but what if you select a horrid name for your protagonist? I blanch at the thought. Now let’s remember that a bad or good name has nothing to do with whether the name itself is commonly liked or disliked by the general populace – a good name has to fit your character. If your protagonist’s name doesn’t suit her … well my friend, you’ve got a problem.

Another example: With Damn Brits I toyed between two names for the hero for months. I struggled, I sweat, I cried (kidding!). Half the novel is written with the first name and the other half with the second choice (which I ultimately selected). Gabs will remember our freshman year antics where we would leave post-its on each other’s doors, most of them concerning writing. One in particular I stuck there when I was so frustrated, I decided to just let her make the choice for me. On a pink heart Valentine’s Day sticky note I wrote:

"Babykins, Julian or Todd? Please respond ASAP!!!!!!!!!!"

Within a few hours I had a yellow note saying:

"Julian. Duh."

And that’s how it went. And she was right. Julian fits the character better. It implies refined breeding (which he has) but also a bit of a rouge (which he is) and a dark history (not giving any details, sorry for the tease). Todd is a great name but it was too simple for Julian’s character. Also, Julian and Rosella sounded like a better pair than Rosella and Todd.

All things must be considered when it comes to names for any character, great or small. That particular character’s personality, the other characters, the physical appearances, the setting. You can’t name a seventeenth century British lord Muhammad (extreme example I know, bear with me). Let yourself go through the 800 changes. Ask your friends. Do what you must until you find the perfect fit. I know it’s a pain. Just do it anyway. You won’t like your story if your names are wrong for it.

But that’s just my process. Everyone is different. So now I ask you:

How do you choose your characters names? Do you change them often? Do they just come to you? Do you Google popular baby names?

Blog Updates

As you may or may not have noticed, there are a few alterations to the blog. All my updates relating to the novels and stories on which I am working are now present on the sidebar beneath a relevant picture describing them. Rather than posting my goals (which I haven’t recently been reaching anyway, so I just look silly telling you about how I didn’t make it) my progress for all creative projects will now be neatly stored on the sidebar.

And

Rowenna has graciously given me the Versatile Blogger and the One Lovely Blog Awards 🙂 Thank you, thank you!

I already posted seven things about myself in a recent post, and I don’t have time to do it again, however I will tag:

Congratulations all! Know you never fail to make me smile 🙂

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About Miss Rosemary

is a recent college graduate from NY hoping to complete her novel of ten years. Stop by her blog, Miss Rosemary's Novel Ideas at http://missrosemary.net or contact her at MissRosemarysNovelIdeas@gmail.com with comments, questions and suggestions. She'd love to hear from you! View all posts by Miss Rosemary

46 responses to “The Worst Decision Ever … Choosing Your Characters’ Names

  • Rowenna

    Sometimes the name comes before anything else, I think! And other times it’s a struggle. In my latest WIP, I had one character who went through about four different names (ultimately settling on Helen, though at one time I thought she was Bess…Bess? What was I thinking?) and one who came out of the gate as Gloria. And could never be anything but Gloria. But there are those characters who spring from our heads like Athena from Zeus, and others who have to be coaxed, names and all. Word’s Search and Replace feature is priceless when I’m “trying on” character names 🙂

  • Bethany

    I must say, they typically come with the story or rather easily with the story – but my most “serious” novel, the two main characters names were close-but-no-cigar. The first letter was right, the length was right, but the sound didn’t work for me. When I switched their names, it was like a gear clicking into place. 🙂

  • T.S. Bazelli

    I have a hard time with names. For me the character always comes first and then I need to find something that fits with that particular personality. It always takes forever, and I’m constantly scanning for good names in newspapers, phone books, LOL anywhere really. It’s always a relief to find one that fits.

    • Miss Rosemary

      Exactly! I’ll have such a detailed idea/description of the character in my head but no name … and then I get desperate and search anywhere for it, though none of them seem to fit. Until that one, fateful, elusive name hits me out of the blue.

  • Goggles and Lace

    I spent so many years roleplaying that I’m now a huge stickler for names having the right sound. Another issue it’s given me is that I can’t continue a story if I don’t know my MCs names for certain. So I spend hours, days, weeks, etc. agonizing over the right names, perusing name lists, sitting on the floor in Barnes & Noble flipping through baby name books. (“Oh, when are you due!?” “Never, I’m a writer.” “… What do you mean?”) It’s my most dreaded and favorite part of creating characters. =P

    And thank you for the award! I’m going to have to go through my blogroll for bestowing purposes! ❤ ❤ ❤

  • unabridgedgirl

    Oh, I love, love, love naming characters. It is one of my favorite parts of the process. Most of my characters end up naming themselves as I begin to write. Other characters are already named before the story begins. I just love it!

    Congrats on the awards!

  • highheelsandslippers

    My problem is that once I attach a name to a character, it has to stay, even if I have doubts – I just can’t change it – it’s as if I feel they have acquired their names by some particular fate.
    Thank you so much for the blog award – will be attempting a suitable Josie acceptance speech soon! 🙂 Ella

  • Ollin Morales

    naming characters! Yeah, you’re right, I think that’s something that is difficult that I don’t think non-writers realize. My characters name’s get a constant make over often. I usually go with a name that I personally feel like it fits with the personality. I’m also big on just inventing names that don’t exist, I just like it cuz its fun and I’m so bored of all the usual names out there.

    But I can do that, because I’m a writer and it’s my world! So there! lol.

    Oh, Miss Rosemary you’re so sweet. Thanks for the award!

    • Miss Rosemary

      “I’m a writer and it’s my world.” Perfect! And I’m glad I’m not the only one who makes up fake names. It’s moments like these that make me feel like I’m not the only nutter around … 🙂

  • junebugger

    I chose any name for my heroine in TRC. Amanda. I liked it because it was simple but pretty. Funny thing is, three years later my friend who takes Latin in university told me that she came across the Latin meaning behind Amanda in her textbook. It was: Worthy of Love. Or something like that. I was totally shocked by this coincidence because one of the major themes in TRC is that though Amanda Hollingworth is a woman fallen in the eyes of her world, in Lucas’ eyes, she is worthy of love.

  • slightlyignorant

    Thank you so much!!!

    I must agree. Naming characters is hard. Some things just sound more RIGHT than others, and then sometimes nothing sounds right.

  • Hema P.

    First of all, congratulations for the two awards! Thank you for your continued support of my blog, and for yet another award, Rosemary. You can never have too many of those, can you? 🙂

    And I can’t tell you how much I agree with your lovely post today. Naming your characetrs is hard, but I love that (researching) part of writing a new novel. In my current WIP, the names for my two girl protagonists came to me the first time I wrote about them. They fit them so well that I didn’t even look back. However, the second half of my novel takes place thousands of years in the past. Believe me, I went through three to four revisions of the names for characters in the past, one of my efforts being to make them as little toungue-twisting as possible. I’m very much at peace witht them all now :).

    • Miss Rosemary

      Oh tongue twisting ancient names! Such a love/hate relationship. They’re so much fun but you don’t want the reader to skip over them and be like “Rashkjlsblegh,” i their heads.

  • Lua

    Ah the process of finding the right name for your character… I don’t know how many times I changed the name of my hero in my novel! First it was Conor (yes- it has something to do with Conor Oberst) then it was Ronald (I know, I know…) then it was Eli and now, as I’m revising my first draft I’m thinking Noah would be a better fit… Agrh! It’s hard, isn’t it? 🙂
    Congratulations on the awards btw and thank you for passing it along to me! You, Miss Rosemary, never fail to make me smile!

  • amanda

    Baby-Name books, and cemetery headstones (yes, a creepy but interesting outing in the name of research) have always proved helpful to me during the naming process.

    BTW, I like your “progress reports” on the side-bar. I just did a post today about setting submission deadlines…kudos to you for keeping yourself on track!

  • Barb

    talk about blog serendipity! This came out just after yours:
    http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2010/07/name-game.html
    As for me, I have a notebook where I write down names whenever I meet them – from phone books, movie credits, wherever, including the *gasp* SPAM FOLDER!!! 😀 Before emptying it, I just check if there’s an interesting name worth keeping…
    And as I write fantasy, I also downloaded or bookmarked a few free name-generators (some work also for foreign names), just in case…
    Happy writing (and naming characters)!
    B

  • Helen Ginger

    I loved reading the journey you take to name characters. I’m in a quandary about a character’s name right now. It’s not even her original name, but I’ve gotten used to it, only to now decide it’s too long. It needs to be shorter, quick, a nickname. I’m searching for what it could be, trying different names on her, but so far none has stuck.

    Straight From Hel

  • milkfever

    Isn’t it funny how some characters seem to come with their names firmly fixed in place and well suited to their personality, and yet others are a real challenge to name? One of the situations I’ve struggled with is when a not-so-nice character has the name of someone I become acquainted with. Often I change the name, worried that the person will think I am trying to subtly say something about them. In fact, it’s almost like as soon as I name a character, people will come into my life with the same name. Weird.
    Great post btw.

    • Miss Rosemary

      Oh god, that’s the worst and it happens to me all the time!! I wrote one draft with this terribly eveil character in it and I loved the name for her … until a year later I met one of my now best friends of that name. The character’s name had to be altered of course … but it took a while and I don’t like the new name as much. Sigh. Such is the life of a writer.

  • brownpaperbaggirl

    Naming characters is always a fun process. I usually know that if I name comes along with the character automatically in my mind, the character is going to stand out on the page as being very alive.

    Congrats on the awards! 🙂

  • Lydia

    I’m very partial to “Elsa”. I’m not sure why. It’s a little strange but cute.

  • Corra McFeydon

    Hi Rosemary! Thanks so much for the award. 🙂

    In the novel I’m currently writing, I just picked whatever name came out of the air. I figure it’s something I can refine later.

    My feeling is that the character makes the name. So whatever name you choose has the potential to work, to be quirky, to contrast, to be beautiful.

    In real life, we get the name before we get the (visible) personality. It’s kind of like that for me when I write. I’m more curious about the nature of the character than his name.

    Besides, a name you, as author, think is beautiful, won’t necessarily feel beautiful to all your readers.

    In the end, I think the story is more important than the name.

    Only my opinion! 🙂

    – Corra

    The Victorian Heroine

    • Miss Rosemary

      I like that “the character makes the name.” That seems to be the best way to go about it, instead of trying to please readers (and you can’t please everyone) just have the characters tell you who they are 🙂

  • Katherine

    Usually a browse through The Peerage will help me.
    One time I was at the library working on a short story and was struggling on a characters, I knew I needed to introduce another into the story so I looked around me for inspiration. An older lady who was there resembled actress Penelope Wilton so I named her Mrs. Wilton, it was a start and for her first name I choose Eugenie (found in the Peerage website).

  • ABlankWhitePage

    Oh my. I tend to pick one and stick with it. Though I guess I give it a bit of thought…my latest has a common name, because I want her to be ordinary but in extraordinary circumstances. But I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay. Oh, now I’m all concerned about the name of my character in my previous MS. AUGH!

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  • kimberlyloomis

    Every project is different. My completed manuscript, mainstream/romance, boasted names that were relatively normal for our society now while my WIP’s h/h were both named with two criteria in mind: what does the name mean/symbolize and does it sound old-world. And the kicker with those wip names is that they’re actually false identities. Both of ’em. Others in the work have unique names you don’t hear on the street, kind of sound almost futuristic, and so the criteria was simply loosey goosey. Thanks for sharing how you go about looking for names. 🙂

    • Miss Rosemary

      Now that’s what I call taking the time to choose your names! I love double and triple meanings. So intriguing! I would love to read/hear more about this wip. 🙂

      • kimberlyloomis

        I never got into the idea of using symbolism for choosing names before, but this time it just felt right. The wip is a dystopic tale of all shades of darkness. It’s a totalitarian world with but a seeming few thinking and feeling. They’re also working under different identities than they were given at birth, constantly fleeing the names that would have long ago put them to death or torture. And so they survived to present day, working within a system, feeding into all that was bad in the world, until they’re forced into making a choice: Live the life that is prescribed to them or work to change things regardless of the inevitable imprisonment.

      • Miss Rosemary

        How exciting! And intense. And I definitely see how important a name would be to a story like that. It’s like they fit into the plots themselves. Good luck with it 🙂

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