5 Interesting Ways Authors Choose Names for Their Characters

Naming characters is a challenge for every writer. Here are a few ways prolific authors do it, including examples!

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An orange notebook and several balled-up pieces of paper next to it.

Character names are very important, and they can make or break a book. But it’s hard to come up with the right one. There are so many rules: it has to be memorable, each name must be distinct from the other characters, the name has to fit the character, etc. But there are no clear-cut, obvious ways to choose a name, so every writer just has to choose the one(s) that work. Read to learn more about how famous authors choose their character names!

Their Meaning

The importance of name meanings can’t be understated in fiction. They can hint at — or give away — important plot points. The name’s meaning also must fit the character. This isn’t necessarily the most important part of a character’s name, but a mismatch between the character and the meaning of their name will throw readers off.

'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood book cover with a black background and a small image of a woman wearing all red.

The name Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale means “of Fred,” because she “belongs” to a man named Fred. But it could also mean “offered,” which could denote “offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.” This is also compounded by the fact that readers never learn Offred’s real name, so this is all we know about her.

Based on Movies

No story is entirely original anymore, and the same can be said for names. Creative people get inspiration from all kinds of places, and names can be the same. An author may use a name they heard in a movie because of the character themself, how it sounds, or any reason.

'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger book cover showing an orange carousel horse.

Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is considered to originate from movies. He got the name from the 1947 movie Dear Ruth from two actors named William Holden and Joan Caulfield. Salinger just mashed the two last names together.

Based on Time Period

If a book takes place during a certain time period, the names should match the time and culture. Otherwise, the characters don’t fit the setting, and depending on the name, it may take readers out of the story. With the internet, it isn’t that hard to find a name to match the time period and culture an author is using.

'Theatre of Marvels' by Lianne Dillsworth book cover showing a silhouette profile of a woman over a few buildings.

The novel Theatre of Marvels is set in the Victorian Era. The two main characters are Lucien and Zillah, and these names were popular in the Victorian Era. The names fit the characters and the setting they were in, which makes the book even more immersive.

Name Origins

This is similar to names based on time periods, but it’s not exactly the same. When naming a character from a certain religion, ethnicity, culture, etc., it’s important to find a name that matches that. For example, giving a Japanese person a Chinese surname when they have no Chinese ancestry wouldn’t fit.

'The Things That We Lost' by Jyoti Patel book cover with paintbrush strokes of blue and orange.

All characters in The Things That We Lost have names that fit the characters and where they’re from. They’re all Sanskrit names, and all the characters are from India or have Indian ancestry. They work well with the characters — not to mention the names are lovely.

Based on Historical Figures

Basing characters off of historical figures is a fairly common practice. It could be to signify a similarity between the historical figure and the character, or that the author just likes the name, or any reason. There are certain people characters shouldn’t be named after — such as horrible leaders — but for the most part, it’s a good idea.

'Moby Dick' by Herman Melville book cover showing a gigantic whale jumping out of the water.

Moby Dick is actually based on a real whale. It may not be a historical figure in the traditional sense, but it’s still an interesting story. The whale was called Mocha Dick, as it was usually seen near the island of Mocha, and it troubled whalers in the 1830s.

For all the writers: how do you come up with your character names?

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