Top ten things you should not do when you’re naming a character

We all agree—naming characters is probably one of the hardest parts about writing a book. For some authors, it’s like naming a child—this name will live on forever, how does one pick the perfect name? Without further ado, we have compiled a list of the top ten (with a bonus eleventh) tip on things to avoid when you’re contemplating character names.

  1. You’re writing your first paranormal romance, and you really love the name Damien. Guess what, so does everyone else. If you’ve done your research and you’ve read oodles of books in the genre you wish to write in you already know what names keep cropping up again and again. Be original!
  2. Be historically accurate when you’re naming your characters.
  3. No apostrophes in character names, especially if you’re writing fantasy.
  4. Can you pronounce the characters name? Chances are, if you can’t do it, your reader will have a hard time as well, and the last thing you want is for your reader to stumble over your character’s name.
  5. Does the character’s name sound okay when you speak it out loud? You’ve determined that it’s pronounceable, but does it sound goofy? What if your book is selected to become an audiobook? Is the name lyrical enough to be repeated over and over? And does it sound silly if it’s exclaimed? This might be very important if your novel is steamy.
  6. Don’t name characters after anyone you know. You might cause offense, even if you don’t intend to, and you might not want to associate the person you know with the actions of your character (and you can get sued.)
  7. Don’t name characters after famous people, or style names after famous people. Names have associations that sometimes can’t be shaken off, despite what you have the character do. It doesn’t matter if your Severus is a ruthless shipping tycoon, if you can’t shake the image of a hook-nosed and stringy-haired professor from a certain children’s series, neither will your reader.
  8. It’s too late to add an extra letter to your character’s name to make it unique–J.R. Ward has already done that.
  9. Don’t use the same first letter for several characters because it can be confusing. As in, did I read Taylor Jackson’s story? Or was that Teagan? Or maybe Ty? Was it Travis…?
  10. Pairing your hero and heroine with famous couple names is less cute than you think it is. Laurel and Hardy were one of the most popular comedy duos in American cinematic history. Unless you want to bring a groan to the lips of your reader, you’ll avoid this cliché like the plague.
  11. BONUS TIP: No apostrophes in character names. We can’t stress that enough.

Now that you’ve successfully avoided these pitfalls, check out the blog posts from our authors on their process for naming characters:

– Laura Marie Altom: What’s in a name?

– Jeannie Watt: Do characters make the names? Or do names make the character?

– Paula Graves: Choosing character names? Sometimes the Good Book can help

– Kate Hoffmann: Choosing names is never an easy process

– Linda Winstead Jones: No Homers – what if the name doesn’t speak to the author?

– Caroline Anderson: (Almost) hard and fast rules on how to choose a character’s name

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Comments ( 18 )
  1. Ros
    November 2, 2010 at 8:30 am

    Great points! I’d also like to add that as well as being historically accurate, it’s important to me that names are geographically accurate. I’ve read about British heroines called Savannah, Ellery, and so on – all of which read to me as American names. British men aren’t usually called Slade or Buck, either. I’m sure there are different naming habits in Australia and NZ, too. It’s not that hard to check, these days, with lists of top baby names available so easily on the internet.

  2. Tweets that mention Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. --
    November 2, 2010 at 8:39 am

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  3. SheliaG
    November 2, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Good list. I take extra time trying to come up with my character names. When I hear a name and it hits me as a possible first name for a character, I make note of it.

  4. Susie Sheehey
    November 2, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I’m curious about rules #3 & #11… it actually brought a smile to my face as I try to think about that. Why aversive to apostrophes?

    Thanks for the rest of the list as well. I always try to find different sources for names.

  5. Zee Monodee
    November 2, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Great tips that cannot be stressed enough!

    I’m curious though – can the hero and the heroine’s names both start by the same letter?

    Sometimes it just happens that characters are screaming for a name and the letters are the same – better to side-step or go with the flow but make the names ‘distinguishable’?

    Thanks for any answer, and for a great post too!


  6. Jewel Adams
    November 2, 2010 at 10:05 am

    Wonderful advice on the names, thank you.
    I’m still trying to catch my breath over the whole SYTYCW. I thrilled to be getting all this information.

  7. Cheryl
    November 2, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Yes! Agreed. Perhaps apostrophes are out because English convention doesn’t use them in proper nouns and therefore most English speakers don’t know how apostrophes are meant to be pronounced. Names are read over and over again during the course of a story, and they hold the essence of the image we create in our minds of that character, as readers. To me they either ring true or false. It’s so important to me, as a reader, I’ll check the first pages, and if the character names ring false, or make me snigger, or I’ve seen it a million times, the book goes back on the shelf.
    Now, I need to try avoiding these mistakes as a writer.

  8. Connie
    November 2, 2010 at 10:55 am

    #5 makes me question one of my hero’s name. Doak Coley. The book is an historical western. I like the name, especially the whole name. But if I say just “Doak” outloud, it sounds like “dope.”
    Doak Walker was a famous football player born in Texas but played for the Detroit Lions.

    Do any of you have an opinion?

  9. Jeannie Watt
    November 2, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Hey Connie–I went to school with a guy named Doak. He was an excellent athlete and quite good looking. I never thought about the Doak/Dope connection–probably because he was cute.


  10. Jeannie Watt
    November 2, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    I sent a little too soon, and meant to add that I love the list, Connie. Excellent points.


  11. Josh Lanyon
    November 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Here’s my rule: Don’t name your character anything that would get him beat up on the playground when he’s just a little character.

    (Unless the point is that everyone beat him up when he was just a lowercase.)

  12. Terry Odell
    November 2, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    It’s also important that it sounds like your character’s parents named him, not you. I keep a simple spreadsheet with the letters of the alphabet to make sure I’m not fixating on one letter.

  13. Sharla
    November 2, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    My main characters come with a name. I know them before I ever write about them…they come to me for some reason. Secondary characters are trickier. I feel them out–see what fits–but I also check the popular names for the year they’re born. I google Popular baby names for 1960, and get the top twenty.

  14. MarcieR
    November 2, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    #9 – any objections to hero and heroine having their names begin with the same letter? Say – Ty and Terri?

  15. Marguerite
    November 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    You forgot to add the confusion when you give your female a traditionally male name. Like Ryan, Hayden, or even Chris. It can really get confusing at times. Especially if you don’t quickly established gender with a he/she. LOL

  16. Connie
    November 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Thanks for the input Jeannie.

    And yes, it does help if you know someone who was good-looking and athletic w/that name.

  17. Maurine
    November 3, 2010 at 9:11 am

    I don’t get number 8.

    Number 9 I totally agree with, but I read a Presents where two characters had similar names and in fact the wrong name was printed in one place so I wasn’t the only one who got confused.

  18. Julianne
    November 3, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Point number 2 is a bit confusing. Why shouldn’t you “Be historically accurate when you’re naming your characters”? I’d think it would look quite silly to name a character in an 18th century setting some typically Hippie name, if the norm for the century was George and Martha, you know? Explain please?

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