Monday, September 27, 2021

The Importance of A Name for Your Novel's Characters

by Ane Mulligan @AneMulligan

I spend a lot of time on my characters’ interviews, getting to know them well before I start writing. That way, the name I choose for them—like that friend you've known for years and couldn't imagine their name as anything else—sticks.


But it hasn't always been this way. 


Have you ever had characters refuse to give up their secrets? Have you been stuck in a story for some unknown reason? You've got a plot, have scene markers, so what's wrong? 


Maybe you’ve been calling them by the wrong name. 


Like that neighbor across the street who kept ignoring me. Well, duh. I’d been calling her Kathy, and her name was Laurie. Characters can be the same. After all, knowing the right name is important.


The first time it happened in a novel was when I worked on a yet-unpublished novel. One character pitched a hissy fit—stamped her foot and refused to go where I wanted her to. And she was a secondary character. Important to the plot but not the protagonist. Finally, I changed her name, and immediately she gave up her secrets. Go figure.


But I learned a valuable lesson. I spend more time now on all my characters' names, and their interviews if they are a POV character or a sidekick to my protagonist.


If I'm writing historical fiction, I first go to the Social Security Administration’s site for popular names from the year the character would have been born. You can use many years around the year you're writing. And search for more than just the top fifty (50) names.


Once I've found a few possibilities, I go to the Baby Name Survey Book, by Bruce Lansky. When I first found this book, I was gobsmacked! It tells you what the people surveyed reported for the image they got when hearing (or seeing) the name. This is a valuable resource. If I'm writing a naive heroine, I don't want her name-image to be a sturdy, middle-aged woman. Nationality can play into this, so if your heroine is of a specific people group, be sure the name doesn't bring up another image—i.e., Irish vs. French.


In that yet-unpublished book I mentioned above, I used "Marie" for the secondary character's name. The survey book says, "Most people think of Marie as a pretty, fun-loving woman who is artistic, friendly and sweet. Some, though, think of Marie as hardworking, dependable, and boring." Had I read that before naming the character, I never would have tried Marie. She was neither of those descriptions. 


So, how do you choose the names for your characters? Do you have any special books or sites you use? I'd love to learn about them.


The Importance of A Name for Your Novel's Characters thoughts from @AneMulligan on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Ane Mulligan has been a voracious reader ever since her mom instilled within her a love of reading at age three, escaping into worlds otherwise unknown. But when Ane saw Mary Martin in PETER PAN, she was struck with a fever from which she never recovered—stage fever. She submerged herself in drama through high school and college. Years later, her two loves collided, and a bestselling, award-winning novelist emerged. She resides in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a rascally Rottweiler. Find Ane on her websiteAmazon Author pageFacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and The Write Conversation.


  1. Excellent post. I sometimes rename characters multiple times as they develop personalities. Excellent guidance.

  2. Thank you, Cindy. In my current WIP, my heroine has had three names. And one of her gal-pals has had two.

  3. Thanks, Ane, for sharing such helpful advice. I looked up one of the sources you mentioned, and enjoyed Bruce Lansky's outlook. In fact, I wrote down his info so I could investigate it further.

  4. Glad to have helped. I think you'll like what you find.

  5. Thanks for your useful information, Ane. I appreciate your helpful blog this morning. Keep them coming.

  6. Great information, Ane. I'm writing a mystery novel where some of the names have special meanings. It's been fun to weave the names into the story.

  7. It is fun, isn't it? Can't wait to see yours!

  8. I love picking names for my characters! For my Southern Breeze series, I needed some really OLD Southern surnames - THAT was a fun search!!