Monday, March 27, 2023

Tips for Choosing Character Names for the Stories We Write

Ane Mulligan @AneMulligan

When William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, one of the lines became quite famous: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." It’s now an adage and used in everyday speech. It's so renown one can merely quote the first part, and everyone knows the rest. 

The adage may be true of flowers but not so much for characters in a book. 

The other day, I saw a Facebook post by an author I admire. She was bemoaning the fact she had changed her main character's name six times and still didn't like it. 

She's not alone. It's something that plagues a lot of writers, including me. My characters will not give up their secrets if I don't have their name right. They balk and refuse to cooperate. I've even had them blatantly tell me that isn't their name. Try explaining that to a normal (the name by which writers refer to non-writers).

My books all contain an ensemble cast of strong women helping each other through whatever life throws at them. But I have to be sure each is balanced with vulnerabilities, flaws, and quirks that suit them. 

Along with my ensemble cast, I usually have a town or village population. Because I don't want too many names beginning with the same letter or sound, I keep a spreadsheet sorting it by first name or last. It's come in quite handy since I'm a Planster: a writer who has a broad outline but write by the seat of their pants. New characters pop up when I least expect them. When that happens, I first pull up my spreadsheet and determine what first letters I want to use.

Names are very important and for many reasons. One is names will evoke images. I don't want my main character to be viewed as an airhead, when I need her to be strong. I learned to accept that and spend a lot of time discovering my characters' names and their background. There are four places I get names. Three are online and one is a book.

The first online one is the Social Security Baby Name site, where I search by the birth year. I will sometimes vary that, but I've found many perfect names this way. 

Next is Behind the Name: the etymology and history of first names. You can search by nationality or simply use the alphabetized list. Third is Surnames: Behind the Name: the etymology and history of surnames. I make sure the first and last names sound good together and don't contain too many syllables. 

I always consult The Baby Name Survey Book, which tells what people think of when they read a name. If you want a strong heroine—one who could chase down criminals—don't name her Aurora (viewed as an airhead) or Emily, who is seen as frail. You want a name that evokes strength and determination. 

Not all names I use come from the above-mentioned places. There are times I meet someone with a name I know I'll use one day. That's how I got Genessee's name in By the Sweet Gum. I also use friends' names at times. One is Glenice, one of Cora's best friends and member of the Dilly Club in On Sugar Hill. Her name is a combination of both her parents' names and I love it. Just be sure you get permission, but most people love to have their names used as long as they aren't the villain.

So, that's how I choose names. However you decide your characters' names, make sure they evoke the image you want and flow easily off the tongue. And if you have a special place or way you decide on your characters' names, please tell us in the comments.

Ane Mulligan lives life from a director’s chair, both in theatre and at her desk creating novels. Entranced with story by age three, at five, she saw PETER PAN onstage and was struck with a fever from which she never recovered—stage fever. One day, her passions collided, and an award-winning, bestselling novelist immerged. She believes chocolate and coffee are two of the four major food groups and lives in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a rascally Rottweiler. Find Ane on her website, Amazon Author page, Facebook, Instagram,Pinterest, The Write Conversation, and Blue Ridge Conference Blog.


  1. Such an informative and helpful post. I recently had to change a character's name after I'd written the entire manuscript. My heroine is a bestselling author, who uses a pen name. Somehow, even though I googled her pen name early on, I didn't pull up that her pen name is the name of a real bestselling author who uses a pen name. (Got all that?) I'm thankful an editor did. So I had to change. I always helps to google names too if they're key to your story in some way .

  2. For Historical fiction I'll google popular names for 1872 or whatever year my setting is in. Women were not called Taylor or Tiffany back then. Biblical names and names like Beulah and Beatrice are more common. My first book Secrets & Charades heroine was Evangeline. Healing Heart it was Genevieve but she went by Genny, Then came Delilah and Angelina.All of theses stories took place post-Civil War. While my contemporaries still have both old fashion and modern Isabella and Bria. I have used my children's names as minor or walk on characters, especially my sons. I will defintely be checking these sites out in the future.

  3. Thank you for posting on this topic, Ane. I've recently started to rethink a major female character's name in my Biblical fiction novel and both your spreadsheet method and the name lists will be very helpful tools.
    I would not have thought of either on my own! lol

  4. I love creating names for my characters. Although I occasionally pick a name for no reason other than it seems to fit, more often I use names of beloved relatives, elementary school teachers, neighbors, friends, and even the name of the street a favorite aunt lived on. I’ve also been known to rearrange the letters of a surname. I like to think this is a way to honor people who have been positive influences in my life. Although my readers may not know how special these names are to me, I know.

  5. Obituaries are a good source too, but if the story is set in a real location I don’t use family names that are well known in the area.