I call everyone ‘Darling’ because I can’t remember their names.
-Zsa Zsa Gabor
Go to any baby name website and you’ll find lists of the trendiest names over the past few years or even decades. Notice how “Harry” and “Hermione” spiked in popularity in the late nineties, and how six years ago “Bella” and “Edward” found their way onto more birth certificates? Parents-to-be are getting their baby names from the books they read.
It’s writers who use the baby name sites.
Going onto baby name sites and looking up name meanings and origins is lots of fun for writers, but the actual choosing of characters’ names can be a tough process. Our characters are kind of like our kids, and we all secretly dream that our creations will be household names one day. Picking just the right name is an undertaking all writers accept seriously.
Sometimes we name characters after friends and loved ones, celebrities, or other fictional characters who’ve inspired us. Other times the name comes with the conception of the character, or we hear a name in passing and think up a character to suit it. Often, though, writers have to do a little research to find the right moniker.
When choosing your character names, you can explore culture, faith, and generational gaps. Traditional names from around the world can signal diversity to the reader with subtlety; religious names are more common than you think; and classic names versus modern names speak to the times and parent personalities.
Try to find a balance of common and unusual names. You want to pick something distinct without being too bizarre. For bigger casts, keep popular names in mind, as at least one trendy name is bound to show up in a circle of friends. It’s statistically unlikely to have a cast of five or six characters with uncommon names, so be aware of that as well.
Most television shows with four or more main characters will show good variety of names and are good resources for writers looking for examples in balancing names. One of my favorite examples is Friends, which centered on six characters: Rachel, Phoebe, Monica, Ross, Joey, and Chandler. There’s only one strikingly unusual name in the bunch, with a couple of very common names and a few with a medium level of popularity.
For larger casts, Rick Riordan is, naturally, another of my favorite examples. The main group in his Heroes of Olympus series includes Percy, Annabeth, Nico, Jason, Piper, Leo, Hazel, and Frank—a nice mix of everyday and rare names. Common last names like Jackson and Chase play down the uniqueness of Percy and Annabeth’s names, while Valdez and Zhang signal Leo’s and Frank’s cultural backgrounds.
Sometimes the place to get creative is in your characters’ nicknames, so keep those in mind as well. When you choose names, think about whether your Jennifer goes by Jennifer, Jenny, Jen, J, or maybe her last name or a totally off-the-wall nickname. Do different characters call Jennifer by different nicknames? Such distinctions can establish relationships without outright telling readers how two friends or family members are different. It sounds silly, but readers’ perceptions of a Jennifer may be very different from their perceptions of a J; a Jennifer who is also J brings with her a level of complexity, even if it’s just a small one, that readers can get into.
Sometimes we writers name our characters, and other times our characters introduce themselves to us. However inspiration strikes, find the names that fit. Years from now, you could see the baby name trend featuring your characters’ names—your stamp on a generation.