It’s All In the Name

27 Dec

By Sammy Bina


I feel really horrible for my future children. They’re probably all going to hate me because there is no chance of them having a normal name. Absolutely zero. You won’t see any Sarah’s or Elizabeth’s or Katie’s here. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this fascination with unique and unusual names. Samantha’s pretty popular and commonplace, so I’ve always wanted my kids (and pets… and electronic devices…) to stand out. I figure they can thank me when they’re adults and can better appreciate the individuality I helped cultivate.

That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

Writing a novel is kind of like having a baby. One of the first things expecting parents do is pick out names, and you can’t really begin writing without one. As soon as you know whether your MC is male or female, it’s time to start thinking about what you want to call them. If you’re anything like me, you spend hours (and I’m not joking. I mean HOURS.) searching for the perfect name. I’ve got loads of baby name books and websites for just such an occasion. I’ll pull them all out, along with a sheet of paper, and jot down any that catch my eye. Here’s a list of my most used resources:

20,000 Names
Baby Names of Ireland
COOL NAMES by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz
BEYOND JENNIFER & JASON, MADISON & MONTANA by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz
100,000 PLUS BABY NAMES by Bruce Lansky

However, I recently ran into a snag using this method. My current WIP revolves around a girl whose name I ended up making up myself. When I got the idea for the story, I felt as though I already knew her. I understood her personality and motivations, and knew how she’d react in just about any situation. Knowing those key aspects of my character made it easy to come up with an appropriate name. The problem, however, came with her love interest.

Let me explain.

Originally I’d chosen a name for this boy based on the fact that I liked it. That was all. I’d wanted to use it for a while, and this project seemed like as good an excuse as any to whip it out and slap it on someone. So I wrote half the book using it. I loved it, and knew my MC did, too.

And that was fine and dandy until I really started to get to know the character. When I first started writing, I had pictured him one way, but the more I grew to understand him, I realized the name I’d chosen was all wrong. He’s a soft-spoken guy who learns to become more outspoken and challenge authority, and the name I’d given him was a horrible fit. The more I used it, the more cringe-worthy it became. I knew it was time to hit the drawing board.

Two weeks later and I still haven’t found a replacement, but I’m working on it. So, in the meantime, I thought I’d give you a list of things to consider when it comes time for you to name your characters, so you don’t get stuck in the same boat as me!

1. Personality: When I was a kid, I used to hate the name Samantha. I spent years begging my mom to let me switch my first and middle names so everyone would have to call me Nicole instead. Then I grew up and realized my personality didn’t match the name Nicole at all. Think about your best friend – if they wanted to change their name, you’d probably tell them it was a stupid idea. Not necessarily because the name they preferred was lame or weird, but because it didn’t match their personality. When you have a baby, you obviously have no idea what they’re going to be like when they grow up, but with characters it’s entirely different. You’ve already got an idea of how this person is going to behave. That makes your job at least a little bit easier!

2. Sound: Does it sound okay when you say it out loud? How about when you say it in conjunction with your character’s love interest (or companions, if the story isn’t a romance)? For example, Sammy and Benedict doesn’t sound nearly as good as Samantha and Ben. The first sounds kind of clunky, while the second has a pretty good flow. Keep in mind the syllable count and vowel sounds. You probably don’t want to name your main characters Dan and Jan, nor do you want to go with Cleopatra and Elijah. It’s one of those weird balancing acts. Look at some of your favorite fictional characters (books or movies will do) and see how their names have been combined. Most of the time, they’re a pretty good example.

3. Pronunciation vs. Perception: I’ve always had a thing for Irish names. The spellings are a bit strange in comparison to the way they are pronounced (for example, Niamh is pronounced “neev”). When picking an unusual name, you don’t want to pick something a reader is going to stumble over. Science fiction is full of oddball names, but something like Klasdpjklasdj isn’t a good choice. Similarly, the way you pronounce a name may not be the same way your readers are going to. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume Niamh is pronounced “nee-am,” and I’d say that in my head every time I came across it. Case in point: Hermione. When the Harry Potter books first came out, I think every single one of my friends pronounced it differently. Luckily, we had the movies to set us straight. But basically, unless you want your readers spending a lot of time fumbling over your name choices, it’s best to stick to those that are unique, but easy to figure out.

Obviously there will probably be other things to consider, depending on your story and its characters, but those are some pretty basic guidelines that I hope will get you on your way! Godspeed, expecting writers!


Sammy Bina is in her last year of college, majoring in Creative Writing. Currently an intern with the Elaine P. English Literary Agency, she is taking a break from querying to work on a new project, a YA dystopian. You can find her on twitter, or check out her blog.


40 Responses to “It’s All In the Name”

  1. Summer December 27, 2010 at 12:17 AM #

    Me, too, Sammy! I put so much thought into my characters’ names. I look up definition after definition, searching for the name that has just the right ring to it and one that applies to their personality and outlook on life.
    I also have Baby Names sites bookmarked, haha!

    • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 12:23 AM #

      I’m glad I’m not the only one 😉

      God, I have stories I could tell about those baby name books. One time, I had one in my backpack. Someone knocked it over during class and so, of course, everyone saw that I had COOL NAMES and a list stuck inside it. Then they all wanted to know if I was pregnant. I had to explain I was a writer, to which one girl’s response was: “So… you’re a pregnant writer?”

      Haha. Oh, god. And that isn’t even the worst one.

      • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 12:31 AM #

        Maybe I’ll give my kids one of these:

        • Olga December 27, 2010 at 12:41 AM #

          ….Dibs on Rohandra. 😀

          • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 12:45 AM #

            As long as I get Watermelondrea.

            • Summer December 27, 2010 at 1:54 PM #

              I’ll go with Koolaidra.

              • Sammy Bina December 28, 2010 at 1:37 AM #

                Not Grapedrankisha?

  2. Olga December 27, 2010 at 12:34 AM #

    I have three supremely memorable characters. One I found because I was looking up Latin translations for random words (Yes, really) and it struck me as awesome. She was perfect for it!

    Another I named after reading King Lear. Regan is a wonderful name for a girl and, really, Regan is Regan. That’s that. (It’s HER story I’m creating right now)

    The third…will have to be a trade secret till I get around to writing the book. Just because her name is part of the title and the title has so many connotations it’s fantastic. I love it. Came up with the title before her name, by the way.

    Two trade secrets, come to think of it…two trade secrets and one Regan. Gosh I love that girl. She’s so common, oblivious, and generally adorkable!! I ❤ her. Gonna go play in her world now. Tra la la la la!! ^_^

    • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 12:47 AM #

      I’ve definitely found names while looking up foreign words! Sometimes they’re exactly what you’re looking for. I’ve used Latin and Italian before. Though now that I’m done with Italian forever, I doubt I’ll be using it again 😉

      And for the record, I love King Lear. Not as much as some of Shakespeare’s other stuff, but definitely a lot.

      • Olga December 27, 2010 at 12:50 AM #

        Hamlet is my favorite. I quote it at people sometimes. Confuses the crap out of them. They think I’m deep. I’m half tempted to stuff my purse with about a dozen copies and just hand them out like candy.

        Italian. *daydreams* You have no idea how in love with Adriano Celentano I am. Ohsweetjesus give me a few hours with that man….(about 30 years ago, that is…)

        • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 12:53 AM #

          I prefer MACBETH to all of Shakespeare’s work. Lady Macbeth makes that entire play. There’s actually a really great Australian rendition of it:

          And after finishing up my fourth and last semester of Italian this week, I don’t think I ever want to hear it again! At least not for a while 😉

          • Olga December 27, 2010 at 1:07 AM #

            Ahhh. I can understand that. I’m learning Italian all on my own. I have a copy of The Divine Comedy. One page Italian, opposite page English. Hellooooo hard way!

  3. Mac_V December 27, 2010 at 1:43 AM #

    I LOVE and have used 20,000 names for ages, but yes, making up names is always pretty great too. I think my fascination with names is kind of funny because I hated my name as a child BECAUSE it was unique! Nobody had my name and noTHING had my name. Meaning my classmates would all go out and get some cool thing from a vacation with their name on it. I could NEVER do that. (Two of my friends in High School made it their mission to do so and finally found a Spongebob Dog Tag at Universal Studios with my name on it. And spelled right!) But now I love my name.

    AND my boyfriend and I both want our kids to be named after characters from books. Our girl is going to be named after someone in the Chronicles of Prydain (kudos if you can figure it out. Not too hard. ;p) and our boy is a mystery. SO if you’ve got a good boy name, get your book published so I can shove it in my boyfriends face, point at it and say “THIS ONE!”(*cough* Sarah, pay attention *cough* I may or may not want a little Chaol ;p)

    Mac (Meredith)

    • Georgiana December 27, 2010 at 3:02 AM #

      Totally understand the childhood name-hate here. It was a source of constant mispronunciation and general confusion for people haha, but I think I ended up growing into it! Now I get comments like “Ooh, very Jane Austen!”. And I appreciate that not many people share it.

      I’m so fascinated with learning about name origins and have frequented a few of the websites mentioned above. Though one challenge, for me at least (and I’m sure many other fantasy writers), is making up a name that both fits your world and doesn’t alienate readers. I’ve read too many stories with totally outlandish names–Lira’nuv’sael is one that comes to mind. (Real name from a fictionpress story I found, no joke). With something like that, I have to stop reading.

    • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 12:26 PM #

      I think that’s the trouble with having a unique name – those weird souvenir shops never sell anything with your name on it. Or Christmas ornaments. One year the store didn’t even have ‘Samantha’ so I got a snowman that said ‘Samuel’ and crossed off the ‘uel.’ You can always get creative and just start writing your name on things 😉

    • Sarah J. Maas December 28, 2010 at 3:00 PM #

      lol!!! You’re gonna name your girl Eilonwy?!? And lol, if you name your son Chaol, I will die of awesome overload. ❤ ❤

      • Mac_V December 30, 2010 at 11:17 AM #

        I’ve loved Chaol since the first day I read Queen of Glass. Seriously. I still doodle his name in my notebooks from time to time. >.<

  4. TymCon December 27, 2010 at 6:21 AM #

    (Awkward Silence) I named one of my characters, who was a sly villian, Bobby…Supernatural phase.
    Actually Ben and Bob appear a lot in my stories. MY current character for my short story is called Dan. Wow i need to spice it up a bit!
    Irish names FTW.

    • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 12:29 PM #

      There’s nothing wrong with calling the guy Bobby if it suits him!

      And I totally agree. Irish names are fantastic. When I lived there last year, I wound up keeping an extra notebook in my pocket and jotted down the name of just about everyone I met. So far I’ve used about seven of the names in my books! Only… a lot more to go, haha.

  5. Cari December 27, 2010 at 12:16 PM #

    I have carried around a baby names book, too! People just don’t understand. I really enjoyed this post. I’m in the middle of a major face lift of one of my older works and I new first thing when I went back to it that I HAD to change several names. It’s difficult because I see these characters as these names, but it’s also nice because when I picked them I was more concerned about the meaning of the names than the way they sounded and even I don’t know how to pronounce them!

    • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 12:30 PM #

      I agree, changing a character’s name after you’ve been using it for a while is HARD. Because while I know the old name doesn’t fit, I haven’t found a better one yet, and let me tell you, it is FRUSTRATING. So I feel your pain. Here’s wishing you all the luck in the world!

  6. Milli December 27, 2010 at 12:59 PM #

    I think the trouble with unique names is that it’s easy to go overboard and name a character a really rediculous name. I’d rather just stick to the classics and subtle changes to them

    • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 1:39 PM #

      Oh, totally. It’s fun to throw in a unique name every once and a while, but then you run the risk of overloading your story with names people can’t pronounce, or have never heard of. Naming is such a tricky game.

  7. Aly December 27, 2010 at 1:14 PM #

    Haha I can empathize with everyone who has an uncommon name. It’s especially annoying for me because no one seems to know how to spell it the way I do (the most common spelling). I’ve gotten so many variations over the years…

    That was a good point about how a main character’s name sounds with their love interest’s/companion’s. I thought of a few examples and oddly enough most that came to mind have four syllables total. (Like Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, Peter and Wendy, Katniss and Peeta.) My MC and her love interest add up to four syllabes as well! Just something neat I wanted to share.

    Great post! (:

    • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 1:41 PM #

      You know, I have the same problem. Sammy’s pretty common, I think, but no one ever spells it right. My aunt has spelled it wrong on every card she’s ever given me, and she keeps changing the way she spells it because I think she knows she isn’t getting it right, haha. Sometimes simple names are just as challenging as the unique ones!

      I noticed that, too! A lot of my favorite literary couples come in four syllables. My characters tend to be five, oddly enough. Go figure! Maybe writers like to stick to syllable patterns. There’s a thesis for you!

  8. Caitlin December 27, 2010 at 1:53 PM #

    Wow, that’s how you pronounce Niamh? I had no idea… I really want to learn Gaelic, but it just makes no sense to me! Ah well, hopefully I’ll figure it out one of these days.

    I’m obsessive over names too – and generally I’ll get a vague idea of a character’s personality and then spend FOREVER scrolling through baby name sites (my favorite is the one on – loads of names, lots of irritating popups too, though, sadly) to find one that matches.

    I’ve had to change character names a lot, recently, but fortunately every time it’s coincided with a complete rewrite, so it hasn’t been too much of a problem.

    And spelling-wise? Goodness, no one can EVER spell Caitlin. Even though it’s the proper Irish form of the name! Silly people…

    Great post, Sammy!

    • Sammy Bina December 27, 2010 at 7:36 PM #

      Thanks, Caitlin!

      And I know just what you mean. I guess I always assumed everyone spelled Sammy the way I do, but apparently I’m the one who spells it differently! Who knew, right?

      If you go on the Irish Baby Names website above, there’s a recording for all of the names! Granted, I learned how to pronounce Niamh because of Ballykissangel, but that’s beside the point 😉

      • Caitlin December 27, 2010 at 8:35 PM #

        Ooh, really? That’s so helpful… going to go get schooled in Gaelic pronunciation now. 😛

        • Sammy Bina December 28, 2010 at 1:38 AM #

          Yep! Some woman working in a bookstore in Ireland actually told me about it! Best resource EVER.

    • Caitlin December 28, 2010 at 2:09 PM #

      Oh my goodness Caitlin! I am also Caitlin and I had this problem all through growing up but then in college I realized that name spellings are probably regional and I’d just been stuck in the wrong region.

      I mean Caitlin is the third most common spelling of the name in the USA right? What I found out when I went to University in Texas though is that it is the most common spelling there so suddenly people were spelling my name correctly and it was amazing (not all the time mind you but more than ever before). I also met and am now good friends with a Kaitlyn who complained about how people were always spelling her name with my spelling! It was totally the opposite for me growing up.

      For actual points to this comment and not just name commiseration, three things:

      1. In Texas it’s actually not uncommon for people to go by their middle name. for a variety of reasons their parents will intend to call them by their middle name when they name them. The Kaitlyn I mentioned above? Actually Jennifer Kaitlyn but you wouldn’t know it unless you had a class with her (she has to correct professors on the first day) or saw her name on an official document. (I know a Christopher Ryan who goes by Ryan, an Edwin Montgomery, a family name, who goes by Monty, and numerous others.) So if your story is set in the real world it probably helps to have some knowledge of regional naming conventions for your setting.

      2. My favorite name site is Behind the Name. It has so many names organized by origin and/or gender and provides meanings to names and links to their related names. Also trust me it’s even weirder for you to spend hours on sites like this if you are single and aren’t an author.

      3. You didn’t quite touch on last names, which I find much harder personally, but when thinking up last names for friends’ fake boyfriends and etc. I look in a few places. One thing I like to do is troll Behind the Names for archaic old names that have fallen out of popular use, some of these sound like they would make great last names. I also like to look at the US Census Bureau’s information on common surnames because nothing gives a fake significant other away faster than an unbelievable surname (except maybe a lack of facebook friends.)

      • Sammy Bina December 29, 2010 at 12:37 PM #

        That’s a really good point about regional naming habits! And I didn’t know that about Texas at all. So I learned something new today!

        Maybe I’ll do an article on last names someday. I have the worst time with those, and I’m sure I’m not the only once, since you yourself said you have problems with them, too. Thanks for the idea!

  9. Madeleine December 28, 2010 at 1:26 AM #

    That Hermione issue? Goodness – I probably called my aunt five times with, “How do you say her name again? Her-me-own?” Yeah, that was a problem.

    I haven’t had trouble naming characters much, though I changed a main character’s name from Erin to Grey (weird, I know, but it’s perfect). I think we all have some sort of tendency. I, for one, tend to pick names that I’d never give my future children – like Sydney and Terrence for girls. Sometimes, though, I just throw in a name because it’s gorgeous. 😀

    Great post.

    • Sammy Bina December 28, 2010 at 1:40 AM #

      THAT’S HOW I USED TO SAY IT! Her-me-own! *High-five*

      And it’s funny that you say that. Instead of names I’d never give my children, I constantly try to put the ones I *would* choose in my stories! So far I haven’t found a good Ivy, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed! Haven’t used Xavier, either. I think this needs to be remedied.

    • Caitlin December 28, 2010 at 2:13 PM #

      My best friend and I had so many fights over its pronunciation before the fourth book was released. To be fair apparently it’s a more common name in England and the books didn’t become huge in the USA until after the third was released. IIRC both my friend and I were proved incorrect, although she pronounced it the same way as the audiotapes who were saying it wrong for at least the first three books!

  10. Ella December 28, 2010 at 3:58 PM #

    You are so damn right – names are the bane of my existence as a writer. |D; My FMC alone has had hers changed five times. There are so many things to consider – sound, country of origin, meaning, secondary meaning, etymology, secondary etymology, the way it looks on the page, the way it reads with the surname, whether it matches the MMC’s name, whether it sounds like the name of another character, whether it’s already taken by another author’s heroine, whether it has unfortunate associations…not to mention that sometimes, you get the perfect name that you’ve researched hours for and you put it in the manuscript and it just doesn’t /fit./

    *tears out hair, vows to never have children*

    • Sammy Bina December 29, 2010 at 12:39 PM #

      I feel your pain, Ella. I have a feeling my current MMC is going to go through quite a few name changes. Some other characters, too, since I just realized today that two of them have very similar names and are in a few scenes together. God, so much work goes into just naming characters, it’s a wonder people even write BOOKS after that! :-p

  11. Elen December 29, 2010 at 4:37 AM #

    I LOVE NAMES TOO. For so many reasons – beyond the cool factor (hooray unusual, foreign names like Irish/Gaelic ones with awesome spellings/pronunciations!) – I love to imbue my names with SYMBOLISM and layers. Which is also why I’m an avid advocate of the name website Because it’s fairly accurate and it can give a little bit of historical perspective, besides the etymology, of the names. That website helped me choose the name of my antagonist, based on the etymology and its explanation of the little-known myth it was associated with.

    I thoroughly approve of this article. :} Keep up the writing and naming!

    (P.S. My children will probably hate me too, because no WAY are they getting normal names.) >)

    • Sammy Bina December 29, 2010 at 12:42 PM #

      You’re the second person to mention that site. I’m totally bookmarking it for future reference. Muchos gracias! It sounds like something right up my alley.

      And high-five for future moms whose children will hate them 😉

  12. Lea Kaplan December 31, 2010 at 11:52 AM #

    I’m going to be the third, Sammy! Behind the Name is my favourite, too. It also has a surname sub-site: I just wish the surname sub-site has a name generator like the first name site does. Oh, well.

    One of my current WIPs has four important names that are A-names. My protagonist, one of the male MCs, one of the protag’s closest friends, and their school. I keep saying “I need to get rid of all those A-names.” But I haven’t picked any new ones yet. The best part is that I think the one I’ll be changing is the protagonist. I also had one story a while ago where I started off in a first-person POV, and then changed into third person. And then changed the MC’s name. And the name I changed it to was just so perfect, and the POV was suddenly better, that when you read it through (it’s handwritten), there’s such a noticeable shift when suddenly, the story flows so much better because the MC has the right name.

    I think, as writers, we NEED to be obsessed with name pickings and looking up fun spellings and etymologies. “I’m obsessed with names. But that’s because I’m a writer.” “Oh, in that case, it’s okay.” You’d be surprised how often I have a variation of that conversation.

    • Caitlin January 4, 2011 at 1:40 AM #

      No way, Behind the name has a surname sub-site? that is so cool I’ll have to check it out right now!

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