Characters, Writing Tips

Character Creation: The Etymology of Choosing Names

Names are one of the most important aspects to creating characters, because how can you write a story about someone if you don’t even know what to call them? Sometimes, like with my current work in progress, names just come to you based on what you know about your cast.

When I started writing Work in Tandem, I had only the vaguest idea of where I wanted the story to go, and the only distinguishing traits of my characters were their physical appearances and their occupations. Other than that, I had almost no where to start. One of the characters did look similar to someone I knew in real life so her name came from a variant of my real-life friend’s name. As far as the other main character goes, her name just popped into my head. There really was no pre-planning.  If, however, you are not so lucky as to have the perfect name on the tip of your tongue the minute you start writing, what are you supposed to do? Today’s blog post will be an attempt to help you answer that question.

Hello and welcome back to Claerie’s Tales. If you are new to this blog or my character creation series, I recommend starting with part one. If you are a returning reader, thank you so much for coming back and I hope you find today’s post helpful.

So, when it comes to choosing names there are a few central building blocks that you can use to get started. The first and most obvious piece to figure out is whether you want your character to have a female name, a male name, or a unisex name. Determining this will help you narrow down your search considerably because you can filter out all of the names that are specific to a gender identity that doesn’t apply to your character.

The next thing you want to do, is think about you time period. If your book takes place in the 1800s, you’re probably not going to want to use names that are super common in 2018. If you’re writing a fantasy, you might want to consider pulling up a list of gender-appropriate names via google, picking a few you like, and playing around with the spelling to get the desired pronunciation or make them look more attuned to your world.

You also have the option to search for names with a specific meaning. Maybe you have a character who is particularly graceful and you want their name to denote something about their personality. In the ABC show Once Upon a Time, each character had a fairy tale identity and a corresponding personality in the present timeline. Each of their present-day names gave the audience a hint as to who they might be in Fairy Tale Land. For example, Snow White was named Mary Margaret Blanchard. Blanche means white in French. Another character was called Regina, which means queen. Her identity in Fairy Tale Land was The Evil Queen.

Furthermore, it doesn’t even need to be that complicated. Back when I was working on my historical fantasy, I couldn’t come up with a name for my grandfather character. I knew that I wanted the origin language to be French and that his occupation was a toymaker. Simply combining those elements together gave me a whole host of name options to use, and eventually, I found one that fit perfectly.

My final trick is to just start with a letter of the alphabet. In my experience, just typing out names on your keyboard helps to weed out those that sound completely inappropriate for your character. Eventually one of the letters may stand out to you. Figuring out how you want your character’s name to start may not seem like a big deal, but by settling on only one letter of the alphabet out of 26, your options are considerably downsized, which, in many cases, may make it easier for you to choose simply because you’re less likely to be overwhelmed.

A quick recap.  If you can’t figure out what to name your character try starting with one of these methods:

  • Pick a letter of the alphabet
  • Determine if you want a male, female, or unisex name
  • Search for names that are defined by a character’s personality trait or occupation. (i.e. grace, wisdom, soldier, toymaker etc.)
  • Search for names from a certain country of origin to denote heritage (i.e. French, African, English, German etc.)
  • Search for names popular in a certain time periods
  • And finally, as a bonus tip: search for names commonly used by a specific social class such as royalty vs. noblemen

Name Generating Resources:

Question of the Week: How did you name the main character of your current work in progress? Share in the comments!


If you liked today’s post, please consider scrolling to the top of the page and entering your email to subscribe to my blog and be notified every time I post new content. As always, keep making magic, word weavers!

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