Do’s and don’ts of character names

Most couples when expecting a child will spend hours trying to settle on a name. They scour through baby name books, write out lists, and say aloud combinations, just to get it right. As a writer, you likewise should give their characters’ names that same degree of attention. After all, the wrong name can violate the consistency of the imaginary world you’ve created or just plain leave the reader befuddled about who’s who in the story. 

When settling on a name for a character, follow these general guidelines by ensuring names are:
• Easy to remember – In part, that means not making them too long or unpronounceable. “James Bond” is easy to remember; “Maximilian Słobodziane” isn’t. In science fiction or fantasy, too many apostrophes in a name makes it difficult to recall.
• Evocative – A name ought to bring strong images, memories, or feelings to the reader’s mind. In romances, for example, authors typically give the male love interest a strong, masculine name, such as “Brandon” or “Mark.”
• Distinctive – Do not make it too similar to another character’s name. Characters rarely should have names that start with the same letter unless there’s an overriding reason to do so in the plot (Such as a mother giving all three of her daughters’ names that start with “J” because you’re establishing her character trait as someone who wants a “cute” family).
• Not unintentionally hilarious – Unless you’re writing humor, this is a no-no. Don’t create the corollary of a Tom Swiftie by calling your character “Ima Hogg.”
• Gender specific – This will avoid problems when a pronoun is first used to refer to your character. If you describe Pat cleaning the house as the story begins, some readers’ stereotypes will kick in and presume Pat is a woman, so the first time you use “he” or “him” to refer to Pat, the reader will be confused.
• Congruent with character’s nature – Unless writing a humorous book or scene, you wouldn’t give an alpha male character a feminine name such as “Percival” or “Summer.”
• Appropriate for their occupation – Would an Army sergeant who’s a combat veteran go by the name of “Joey” or “Joseph”? Probably not. He’d be “Joe” or have a nickname such as “Fightin’ Joe” in homage to the Civil War soldier.
• Conforms to the culture created – If writing science fiction or fantasy, think about the root language the character’s culture speaks, especially if the character is an alien. A good example are Klingon names in “Star Trek”; Kor, Kang and Koloth all are harsh sounding words and so work.

In addition, introduce your characters’ full names right away. Referring to them solely as “Captain” or “Starmarine” soon will become stilted and awkward. Instead, introduce the character as “Captain John Bennett” so that he can be referred to as “Bennett” by the narrator, “Captain” by the crew, and “John” by his best friend.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.