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How to Create Cool and Unique Character Names (And Ones to Avoid)

Throughout history, naming a child was an act that took on special significance. Whether it is a name that means something important, a name that carries on a family heritage, or a name that is as unique as the baby in their arms—naming has always been an important ritual for parents.

In fact, this article in discusses naming rituals around the world, noting that name choice across cultures is far from arbitrary. For example, consider this Nigerian practice:

The ethnic Yoruba, who make up about 21 percent of the population of Nigeria, name their babies based on the circumstances of their birth, of which there are many. Consider Aina — a girl born with the umbilical cord around her neck. Or Ajayi — a boy born with his head facing downwards. Places also matter, as is the case with Tokunbo — a boy or girl born overseas.

Or this practice in India:

The influence of the horoscope on Indian culture is tremendous. Here, a child often receives the name of the constellation they were born under. In the Northern part of India they will take a name that begins with the first letter of the constellation. In Southern regions a child will take the name of the entire constellation.

In other countries such as Bali and Ireland, birth order of the child determines his or her given name. Specifically in Ireland, children are named after family members and based on their birth order.

The first born boy, for instance, will receive the name of their grandfather on their father's side. The next brother will get the name of their mother's father. The third brother will get the father's name, and the fourth will get their eldest uncle's name. It's the same order with daughters, but starting with the grandmother on their mother's side.

Now, you might be asking—what do parents' naming practices have to do with me naming my characters. Well…a lot, actually. If you're an author, your characters are your babies. They're your darlings, your creation—and often one that has been born through agony, sweat and tears.

But is a name really so important? William Shakespeare wrote:

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare asks, What's in a name
Romeo asks, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Photo by Ricky Kharawala on Unsplash

Is it true that the names you choose for characters are arbitrary and inconsequential, as Romeo mused?

History begs to differ. In fact, there's even a branch of study called onomastics, which is a field that is equal parts linguistics, history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philology. One glance at this website reveals the extent to which linguists and historians have studied names, including their meaning, origin, and popularity among groups of people.

One article on the site discusses the effect a name can have on a person's behavior. The author, H. Edward Deluzain, writes:

The process that gives names their influence is the so-called self-fulfilling prophecy. Briefly explained, the self-fulfilling prophecy works this way. A man introduces himself to us as Percy. Immediately, our unconscious mind goes to work dredging up all the images and associations we have with that name. Without realizing it, we develop a mental picture—a set of expectations—of what a Percy is like. This mental picture causes changes in our own behavior that are so subtle that we are not aware of them. However, Percy picks up on the messages we are sending by our actions, and he makes unconscious changes in his own way of acting to satisfy what he thinks we expect of him. In other words, we set up a situation which forces Percy to behave the way we think Percys are supposed to behave.


Even in the literary sense, can you envision the characters of Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, or even Harry Potter by any other name? If you assume that their chosen character names played a large role in making them memorable characters, it's definitely a safe assumption to make.

So, now that you understand the enormous significance humans have placed on naming someone, you should recognize the importance of taking your time in determining the names of characters in your story or novel. You'd be surprised at the difference a name can make, so before you decide a name for your character, consider these important steps to take.

1. Don't decide at the planning stages of your novel

Thinking of a character name as you outline your book? Not so fast! The best names likely won't come to you until you have fleshed out the character more and written extensively on him or her. In the same sense that many cultures wait until the circumstances surrounding a baby's birth—or even longer, as the baby develops a personality—you should wait to see what kind of "personality" your character takes on before you decide on a name for him or her.

That's not to say it's impossible to know your character's name right from the beginning. However, considering the care that should go in to naming your characters (your babies), deciding on a name right from the beginning could stifle your naming creativity and leave you with a character who is poorly named (and therefore, not memorable).

The best way to avoid this is to begin your planning and writing with an initial. As you write more about J. or L., the best name will likely come to you as the story progresses. You could even use a keyword such as "protagonist" or "antagonist" as you write, then run a simple Find + Replace function to replace that word with the character's name once you've had some time to find the perfect one.

2. Consider the root meaning of the names you choose

Anyone who has ever taken a literature class understands the extent to which readers can dive into symbolism and metaphor as they read a good book or story. In fact, this is what English majors and literature professors do best. In doing so, they love to seek out the root meaning of names to find even more "Easter eggs" that the author has left for his or her readers throughout the story.

Take, for instance, the heroine of the Hunger Games trilogy—Katniss Everdeen. Do you think Suzanne Collins randomly chose that name? Think again. All it takes is a look at this page to understand how deeply Collins researched to find the perfect name for her memorable heroine. Not only is Katniss (Sagittaria sagittifolia) a plant that is also known as "arrowhead", most plants in the species have arrow-shaped leaves. Beyond that, the Latin name of the genus calls to mind Sagittarius, the archer in astrology.

Still think Collins arbitrarily chose that name?

There are many online resources that allow you to find the perfect name for your character. I don't know how Collins arrived at the information on the Katniss plant, but I'd like to think she simply Googled arrows or arrowhead and eventually came upon the name Katniss. Whether this is how she did it or not, it's a good method for you to use to find a cool, unique, and fitting name for your character.

Here are a few other great sites that show name meanings:

Another great option is to find a Wikipedia page about a certain topic based on your character's history or abilities, and search throughout it for links and other complementary sources that could lead you to the perfect, unique character name.

Considering the root meaning of a name is an important step in naming your characters
Considering the root meaning of a name is an important step in naming your characters. Photo by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

3. Use anachronistic names carefully offers the following definition of an anachronism in literature:

An anachronism is something or someone that is not in the correct chronological time period. Anachronism examples can be intentional or unintentional, and involves the incorrect temporal placement of any person, event, object, custom, slang word, animal, or belief system which was not present at that time. The most common type of anachronism is to find something placed in an earlier time than it existed, such as having characters in the 18th century driving around in a car. However, it is also possible to find anachronisms in which the thing is placed later in time after it no longer existed, such as finding dinosaurs coexisting with humans in The Flintstones.


Some great examples of anachronisms in literature are William Shakespeare's mention of a mechanical clock in Julius Caesar and fireworks in Mark Twain's novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Obviously, great authors have used anachronisms in their work. However, I advise against naming characters with names that are anachronistic to the story's setting and time period.

While this is certainly not an unbreakable rule, you should at least be careful with choosing names that don't fit well with the setting and time period of your story. For example, a novel set in the 19th century with a character named Courtney doesn't really work and will destroy your reader's suspension of disbelief. Likewise, if your story is about a wealthy, aristocratic family and their children, naming one of the children something highly unusual certainly wouldn't fit logically. It just isn't something that aristocrats have tended to do.

One thing I like about this name generator provided by Point Park University is the ability to narrow generated names down by time period. The drop-down menus allow you to choose between ancient, old-fashioned, modern and futuristic, ensuring that the names that are generated are not anachronistic.

You can also run a search online for popular names during a certain time period, such as "Elizabethan England names." Such a search will offer results of websites or name generators specifically focused on the setting and time period of your story. The search I performed for the above search string returned multiple websites that were specific to the criteria I needed.

4. Make sure it sounds good when spoken aloud

Even though a novel is generally read, there are several marketing options that would require the book to be spoken aloud. Audiobooks are a big selling point and your book made into a movie is a pretty attractive prospect, especially in terms of the money you could make from it.

Beyond audiobooks and movie rights, there are always author readings and discussions that will inevitably take place in the process of marketing your book. You will also (hopefully) have a lot of readers discussing your book and its characters in reading circles, or in recommendations to their friends and family, so keep in mind that the character names you choose will be said aloud in certain circumstances and should have a nice ring to it (and not be misheard as something else, unless it's intentional).

Character names should sound good when spoken aloud
Consider how the character name sounds when spoken aloud.

5. Consider character names in the context of other characters

Unless you're writing a short story with one character, your character does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, he or she plays off of other characters within the story, and is (in some way) affected by details surrounding those other characters—including their names.

With this in mind, remember that in naming your main characters, there should be a good mix of sounds, initials and number of syllables. In other words, avoid repetitive practices in assigning names to your characters. Giving every character in your book a name that begins with G will get confusing for your readers, just as giving every character a two-syllable name will sound repetitious. Variety is indeed the spice of life, and nowhere is this truer than in assigning character names.

The more variety in syllable count and initials you can offer, the easier it will be for your characters to be distinguished from others in the story. This is especially true if you give the important characters unique names, while leaving standard popular names for your secondary characters. The uniqueness will offer an entirely new level of distinction.

6. Use alliterative initials

There's a reason why characters like Bilbo Baggins and Severus Snape stand out. In fact, J.K. Rowling enjoyed alliteration so much that she used the technique for many names in her books, including the founders of Hogwarts: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin.

Alliteration puts a unique spin on a character's name, making it more memorable. While some writers (J.K. Rowling, especially) use alliterative first names and surnames often, you can also use the technique to differentiate your protagonist from all the other characters.

7. Use name generators

If your search for a meaningful name comes up empty, another option is to use a name generator. These are websites and programs that generate various and random names based on criteria you include. For example, The Fantasy Name Generator is a great site for names that would work well in the fantasy genre. This site also has options to generate real names and names of places based on country of origin and gender.

A website mentioned earlier that provides the root meanings behind names ( also offers an option to discover translations and/or alternate versions of certain names across languages. This type of search gives writers the opportunity to find an alternate version of a well-known name that might be more unique. For example, when I ran a search for my first name (Tonya), the following list was generated:

  • AKONI m Hawaiian
  • ANAKONI m Hawaiian
  • ANĈJO m Esperanto
  • ANDON m Bulgarian, Macedonian
  • ANDONI m Basque
  • ANTAL m Hungarian
  • ANTANAS m Lithuanian
  • ANTE (1) m Croatian
  • ANTEA f Croatian (Modern)
  • ANTHONY m English
  • ANTÍA f Galician
  • ANTICA f Croatian
  • ANTO m Croatian, Serbian
  • ANTOINE m French, African American
  • ANTOINETTE f French
  • ANTÓN m Galician
  • ANTON m German, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Dutch, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Slovene, Macedonian, Croatian, Romanian, Estonian, Finnish, English
  • ANTONELA f Croatian
  • ANTONELLA f Italian
  • ANTONELLO m Italian
  • ANTONETTE f English

Another useful name generator I've found is Masterpiece Generator, which allows you to fill in specific information and have a name generated based on those details. The specifications and details included along with drop-down menus are:

  1. How many examples would you like to generate? (10-100)
  2. Which gender would you like?
  3. What's your character's title?
  4. What type of character is he/she?
  5. Birth year?
  6. How would you describe his/her nationality?
  7. How would you describe his/her parents' nationalities?
  8. Which best describes your character's religious background?
  9. Alliterative names only? (yes/no)
  10. Given Name or Begins with and/or Ends in
  11. Family Name, Popularity, Begins with and/or Ends in

You're also given the option to fill in all of the above with random responses to create a unique, computer-generated name that might be the perfect one. When you generate names on these programs and websites, be sure to generate several to find multiple options you'll want to narrow down later.

8. Consider a name that creates a meaningful anagram

For those lit majors and English professors I mentioned earlier, an anagram is such a fun detail to discover about a character—especially if that anagram reveals some hidden detail or symbolic reference to the character. Teachers love anagrams in character names because it allows them to offer their students an "ah-ha" moment when studying the work and while discussing aspects of a character. And have no doubt, English literature students at the university will discuss a character's aspects for hours at a time, seeking meaning in the smallest of details, whether the author intended meaning to be there or not.

For example, let's say I wanted to create a character who was a loner but also a stellar physician. In playing with the words "lone healer," I came up with the name Lorae Henel. Not only is this a unique name—it's also an anagram of a descriptive phrase representing my character. In simply creating an anagram, I've achieved two goals in naming the character: 1) I've created a unique, memorable name; and 2) I've given my character a name that has hidden meaning (one that is a great "Easter egg" for a reader to discover).

9. Get feedback

Once you've narrowed down name choices to a list of a few possible names per character, enlist the feedback of a voracious reader that you know and whose opinion you trust. It would be even better to find a reader with a lot of experience reading the genre in which you're writing. Without giving details of your character (such as he is the protagonist, he's a warrior, etc.), write down the name(s) you're deciding between and ask the reader the following questions:

  • How would you pronounce this?
  • When you read this character's name, what kind of person do you envision? Include physical details as well as details about what they might do for a living.
  • Do you think this character is good or bad? Why?
  • Does it remind you of another character name or real-life person's name?

After receiving feedback from a reader (or readers), re-evaluate the name in consideration of the reader's responses. Just because a reader guesses wrong (for example, thinks a name is for the protagonist vs. an antagonist) doesn't mean you have to change it. It will just be valuable feedback for you to consider when trying to decide between two or more different names for a character. Ultimately, you're the "parent" and your "child" can be named anything you choose.

A final thought on naming characters

Naming the characters of your story is one of the most exciting steps you'll take as an author in the writing process. Although it might be tempting to determine a character's name immediately in the pre-planning stages of writing your novel, try to resist the urge and give yourself time to learn more about the character as you write. Rather than randomly choosing a name that you think fits, spend time researching meanings, anagrams, alliterations and name generators before making a final decision. There's so much in a name!

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