The 7 Rules For Picking Names

For Fictional Characters

No matter what sort of character name you’re pursuing, heed common sense and follow these seven rules to make sure you pick the best names possible for your story.

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1.Check Your Roots

It’s better to call a character Caleb, which means “faithful” or “faithful dog,” than to overkill it by naming him Loyal or Goodman. Some readers will know the name’s root meaning, but those who don’t should sense it through your writing.

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2.Get Your Era Right

If you need a name for an 18-year-old shop-girl in a corset store in 1930s Atlanta, you know enough not to choose Sierra or Courtney. Browse for names in the era your writing. Small public libraries will often have decades’ worth of local high school yearbooks on the shelves. Having the wrong name in the incorrect era will only throw your reader off and could lead to the DNF (Did Not Finish) pile.

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3.Speak Them Out Loud

Your novel might become an audiobook or an e-book with text-to-speech enabled. A perfectly good name on paper, such as Adam Messina, may sound unclear out loud:
Adam Essina? Adah Messina?

If you’re not planning on this feature, I would suggest you rethink this choice. There are many people in the world who enjoy reading that can only do so via listening due to any handicaps they may have. Don’t exclude them.

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4.Manage Your Crew Appropriately

Distinguish your large cast of characters by using different first initials, of course, and vary your number of syllables and places of emphasis. Remember to show diversity in your characters, especially if they hail from different cultures and backgrounds.

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5.Use Alliterative Initials

Employ this strategy to call special attention to a character. For Example: Daniel Deronda, Bilbo Baggins, Ratso Rizzo, Severus Snape.

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6.Think It Through

You might notice that in most crime fiction the murderer rarely has a middle name or initial. Why?

Because the more you explicate the name, the more likely there’s a real person out there with it. And reading your story they might become upset and try to sue you or come after you some night with a bayonet.

In contrast, most serial killers and mass murderers tend to have a first, middle and last name. They usually are referred to by their full name each and every time. A good sign for narcissism.

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7.Check Again

Ensure that you’re not using names that are overused in other fictional works. Some names might remind readers of a personality type that doesn’t fit your character. And ensure that any foreign names are used correctly–don’t give a Japanese name to a Chinese character unless that’s part of the story.


  1. Michael Karnes

    Baby Name Network is your friend! And if it is a walk on character I choose a random name from the corporate directory 😛

  2. Dirk

    I’ve been guilty of consulting the Baby Name Network(s), especially for names of an ethnicity with which I’m intimately familiar. The only problem with doing that, I’ve found, is you’re not necessarily checked out on what’s current. Need to find someone who is and ask, sometimes.

    1. Meaghan Hurn Post author

      When I meet people out in the world who has a name I like, I write it down in my phone or notebook if I have it on me. I commandeered that idea from Charles Dickens.

      1. Dirk

        It’s so funny that you should do that. I’ve been known to do the same thing with some of the really cool names I pick up watching football or international sports. I haven’t used it, yet but I always loved Gerhardt Hakenen, a German downhill skier in Giant & Super G.

  3. Emilia

    I’d never thought about reading the name aloud for the audio version of a book, thank you for the tip!

  4. Marie-Gabrielle

    This is really great. My favorite resource is BehindtheName. They do multiple ethnicity types, a random name generator from selected cultures, and surnames. A number of the names have blurbs when you click on them though they’re usually brief. Honestly my favorite resource. I’ll have to use your tips when I’m picking from it next time for sure

  5. Dirk

    Thanks for the tip, Marie. I’ve never run across this one. Sounds like a great resource. Thanks for sharing.

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