Character Name Crisis!

I’m at the point in my current WIP where I’m having a ‘naming crisis’. Although I’m happy with the names of my key protagonists, my antagonist currently has a name that just doesn’t fit (sigh…) so I’m in the throes of character naming angst. Being the type of writer that finds it hard to write a character until I have adequately ‘christened’ him or her, this angst is causing me quite a headache as well as producing a weird kind of writer’s block as I write and rewrite the antagonist’s name in various scenes as I struggle to get it right.

Finding the right name for a character is always a critical first step for me. I can’t just put in a placeholder or any old name in a first draft, I really have to be sure of at least the main character’s name before I can find the right voice. Usually female character names are easy – they come to me right away, or at least after just a little historical research (when you write historical like I do, the last thing you want is a modern name that’s completely wrong for the period). When it comes to male characters, however, there’s always some degree of angst. For example, in my current WIP I’ve only just realized that I’m using the same name for my principal male protagonist as in a book a wrote a few years ago – so obviously I have some favorites that I need to eliminate:) I also avoid names of ex-boyfriends or former colleagues (I find it difficult to separate the real person from the imaginary one when using particular names). When it comes to female characters I don’t seem to have the same sensitivity (I also accidentally named a maid after my sister and had no idea until she pointed this out to me…). In my current WIP I can’t work out exactly why the name of the antagonist doesn’t fit (my beta readers are happy with it after all), all I know is that it doesn’t…and I’m struggling to find a name that does.

This character angst has got me desperately looking for new naming strategies including scouring my bookshelves for random author and character names in the hope that these strike some inspiration (nope…) and resorting to baby naming websites (also with little success). So what to do when a character’s name is so elusive?? Honestly, I’m not sure (but maybe you TKZers can help!).

When starting a first draft I often ‘try on’ a couple of character names for my main protagonist (or protagonists) as I work through accessing their voice and POV. Usually this isn’t a major hurdle, but with my current WIP every time I try on a name for the main antagonist it just doesn’t seem right (ugh!)…So TKZers, any advice? What is your character naming process? Have you ever had a ‘naming crisis’ and if so, how did you eventually find just the right name in the end?



50 thoughts on “Character Name Crisis!

  1. Wow. This particular problem isn’t one I’ve ever experienced. The names of my characters seem to appear with them. But I’ve shared your post with my readers (all writers) in the hope they can help.

  2. I’ve had that problem too, Clare. Two solutions: 1) use the names (or reasonable facsimiles thereof) of friends or acquaintances or 2) randomly open the white pages of your local telephone directory and randomly pick two names (first and last) off of the page. Given that most areas don’t print directories anymore #2 might require a trip to the library, which is never a bad thing. Good luck!

  3. Interesting problem, Claire.

    I often change names midstream when I realize several character’s names begins with “M.” Or a bunch end in “y” or “ie” which makes them sound too similar (Tawny, Virgie, Obie–yeah, I did that and kicked myself when they all returned in a later book).

    Try making a list of characters who are already named in your wip. Then you can focus on finding a unique name that starts with a different letter and has varying numbers of syllables. If most names are two syllables long, look for names with one, three, or four.

    Write down the antagonist’s traits, physical as well as mental and psychological. Try for names that reflect the individual personality.

    Since you write historicals, check the census for that era:

    Visit an old cemetery and find names on headstones for the appropriate time period.

    Good luck breaking that block!

    • Good ideas, thanks Debbie! And I often discover part way through the first draft that I’ve named multiple characters (usually minor) with either similar sounding names or all beginning with the same letter (argh!)

  4. If I may, I tend to look at old/original name meanings that seem to coincide with the character’s personality – but do so in an unobtrusive or less obvious way…

    I also like play-on-words that seem to work with the character’s traits ~ again, in not quite so obvious a way – e.g. a recurring protagonist named MacAdam Rhodes in lieu of say, his brother Rocky or cousin Dusty Lane… 🙄

  5. Like, George, I like to play with name meanings. I pick a language (ex. Latin, German, French), and then start looking for interpretations of traits, personality characteristics, or roles in the story, until that interpretation gives me an idea for the basis of a name.

  6. Names are my nemesis. I fixate on letters, or even names. I keep a spreadsheet so I know which letters I’m overusing. When I need a name, I’ll go to the Google machine or my Facebook peeps for suggestions. I don’t have any problems using placeholders, because the writing would come to a halt while I search for the perfect name. One of my crit partners keeps a “name bank” to store names she finds interesting.
    The book I’m writing has me looking back through other ones for reminders, and I discovered that I had given the same name (first AND last) to a character in one of my stand-alones as I use in the series.
    And, I’ve changed the name of one of the bad guys three times, along with one of the aliases my protagonist uses.

  7. I’ll be curious to see what ideas others have. I’ve looked at baby name websites. I also look through historical news or books to see the kinds of names that were used during the period I’m writing about.

    • Historical resources such as church and local registries, ship logs, births and deaths etc. are really useful and I have to admit I enjoy baby naming websites as they often have fun nicknames too that writer’s can play with (especially for long old fashioned names that could be tedious to use in their entirety the whole book).

  8. Check out your local paper’s obituaries, Clare. It’s not just the names of the passed that can be interesting, it’s the links to relatives left behind and the ones who’ve gone before. This covers a wide range of eras. I keep an interesting name list in the back of my journal and add to it whenever and wherever I stumble upon something good.

    • Garry – I confess I rather enjoy reading obituaries as some people have led fascinating lives and there’s often some weird and wonderful information in there – have to keep an eye out for names though as I often forget that as an option!

  9. I like to use names for some characters that have a hidden meaning. For example, a young woman in my current WIP is going to disguise herself as an older female mystery writer (where did I get that idea?) She invents a name for herself, Rose Cramen, and explains that Cramen is at the center of “sacramentum” which is the Latin word for mystery, so she will be the center of the mystery. She picked Rose because of the novel “The Name of the Rose.”

  10. I feel your pain, Clare. Been there. {{{hugs}}} Now, here’s a tip: Check out baby names from heritage/nationality/ethnicity sites rather than the generic baby sites. You must know your antagonist’s background, right? Once you find the correct site, narrow the list by sound. Do you like hard consonant sounding names or does a softer name fit better? I find if I apply these details the name will pop out at me. Good luck!

  11. Clare, I can relate. With my first series, I needed to change the name because another fantasy series with a similar starting premise had just been published, featuring a hero with the same name as mine. My solution was to brainstorm with my writer’s group via email, coming up with ideas and listening to theirs. Eventually, we came up with Mathilda, shortened to “Mat.”

    With my new library mystery series, I decided I wanted a literary aspect to my hero’s name, and thought about the first novel I remembered reading as a child, “A Wrinkle In Time,” and that the young hero was named Meg, and I thought, that’s it. Her siblings were named after favorite authors, but her older brother got to name her, and he chose the book his parents were reading to him. It felt right.

    Good luck finding the right name.

  12. Non-writers just don’t understand about the importance of characters’ names. When the right one pops into your head, there’s a frisson of recognition–yes, that’s who he is. All the puzzle pieces of who he is click into place.

    My first villain was very old money, power, and arrogance. He was from the South so he was most likely Anglo-Norman English. So, very IVANHOE or Robin Hood. Fitzhugh. Bingo. He’s a college English professor, and the snooty and old first name of famous literary scholar Cleanth Brooks finished his identity. Dr. Cleanth Fitzhugh. I enjoyed killing that b*stard. Smirk.

    I have always collected weird or old names, they are in the bible for my first book series. Southern obituaries and historical documents are a gold mine. These tend to be for secondary characters, though. I also figure out a bunch of names for my current work and keep a list of them. I make sure not to include any names that sound alike or have the first letter as the main characters. They are my go-to for secondary characters.

    I also “cast” my secondary characters so they may bear the first name of the actor. I cast Doris Roberts as the cranky yet competent secretary of one of my heroes so she became Doris.

    As to your problem, Claire. You write mystery so put that annoying villain in a mental darkened room with one light shining on him and force his name out of him. Or chat with him in a tavern if he’s that type of character and ask him his history and name.

    I’m sure you are familar with the historically specific name sites online as well the American Social Security site which lists popular names by decade, but I thought I’d throw them out to those in your same historical conundrum.

  13. Elaine Viets has been nice enough to name characters after my wife and myself. Although I should have warned my mother before giving her a copy of the book were my wife and I may or may not have poisoned someone. I think my name is on a street as well.

    Thanks Elaine.

    • Nice!!
      With the way things are going in our country now though, the undead may start having legal rights. Getting sued by a ghost is no fun.

  14. Since nobody’s mentioned it yet, I’m going to throw this out there; the US Social Security Administration has a site where you can look up the most popular US baby names by decade, going all the way back to the 1880s. I use it constantly, especially for characters older and/or younger than I, to make sure I don’t unintentionally create an anachronism.

  15. This is a topic that I can I can best (and possibly, only) discuss as a reader. For me, a character’s name is important but not critical. A character’s name should be consistent with the real world. It doesn’t have to be fancy. I have no problem aligning with a character, good or bad, named John. When the author overthinks it, I kind of lose interest. It’s like they’re trying to compensate for a story they know is not that strong.

    A name that is too weird (Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve) makes me expect a comedic story to follow. If the story turns out to not be comedic, the author is trying too hard and it puts me off. I don’t need protagonists with names like Duke Swagger or Biff Savage. I don’t believe a person’s name predicts their destiny. Again, John is just fine for me. Names that are too pretentious (Tiffany Chanel Smythe-Huffington) wreck a story for me. I know some successful authors have not been hampered by strangely named characters, but I don’t have any of their books.

    As far as character names for my own stories, I have a trove of possibilities. It’s called my high-school yearbook. There is a generous supply of common names, normal names and unique names. I’ll usually take one person’s first name and pair it with another’s last name. If they were nice to me, they get to be a protagonist. If they were bad to me; a stray dog. Over the years I’ve been able to add the names of co-workers (more protagonists, more stray dogs), and friends.

    I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t think names can add a lot to the story. One group that I feel are the masters of meaningful character names is Pixar. My preference is to describe a character (or have it described to me) rather that having to infer something from the name. For me, a character’s name has never saved a bad book but when the author has over-thought it, it has hurt a good one. Looking for a name for your antagonist? Who were the mean girls in high school?

  16. I’ve begun to avoid on-the-nose names and pick the ones the character’s parents would have chosen. (Nicknames are another thing altogether.) This ensures that I don’t end up with names like Count Nefarious.

    Deliberately incongruous names are an unexpected delight! Especially with characters who defy their parents’ expectations. One of my characters is a young woman with plenty of attitude, dressed always in black, whose friends call her “Spike.” The name on her birth certificate is “Louisa Delphine Marianne Maréchal.” I figure that readers can guess a lot about her relationship with her family from this.

    Giving unexceptionable names gives some useful camouflage to villains who don’t reveal themselves right away, too.

  17. Currently working on historical fictions, and discovering that choosing realistic sounding names for character that walked around 5000 years ago, is a bit harder than I though. Most ancient cultures did not name their children until a certain age, due to frequent child mortality. They typically also named with children with names that have meaning in their culture, or traits of the child as they start to mature.
    I am frequently referring to the Genesis Genologies.

    I had a fascinating research discovery related to naming and the misty legends of King Arthur. In a book titled “AFTER THE FLOOD” by Bill Cooper, he postulates a theory that Arthur may have actually been a much much more ancient character, possibly even from the days before the Biblical flood. In several ancient languages Ar is the word for King, and Tor is the name we pronounce Thor. So he puts forth that the original origins of both King Arthur (Ar Tor) and the god Thor (god of lightning) are one and the same man in real life. Possibly a man with powerful leadership abilities and who was physically imposing and a skilled warrior. Anyway, that is the kind of stuff I love to come across during research.

  18. I have a strange…unique…weird…unusual way of naming my characters. I come up with a general description, sex, age, height, weight, etc., then use the Google machine to look up pictures (Female, 29, 5-6 for example). I scroll through the results until I find someone who embodies the attributes of that character and that person’s first name becomes the character name. For last names, I try to ‘even’ out the name – a multisyllable first name might get Smith as the last name, whereas a short first name like Eva will get a longer last name and Christopherson. After I have the name, I sometimes google the full name of the person in the picture I’ve used and found interesting ideas to add to the story (For one book, a single picture gave me the entire plot!). It may sound ridiculous, but it seems to work.

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