Craft,  Creativity

Top Ten Things You Don’t Want When Naming Characters by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelists

Sometimes naming characters is the fun part of writing. And then sometimes you feel like if you don’t get it just right, then your entire world will fall apart.

It doesn’t help that there’s only twenty bajillion names to choose from. Sometimes it’s easier to figure out what you don’t want rather than what you do.

Top 10 Things You Don't Want When Naming Characters  by Katharine Grubb

1. You don’t want repetitive sounds. If there’s a fault to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is this: I have to think twice when I mention Sauron to make sure I’m not mixing him up with Saraman. Tolkien can get away with it, I suppose, but the average writer shouldn’t. When choosing your characters names, create as much variety in length and phonic sounds as you can so that your reader can keep everybody straight. If you have a Peyton, Hayden, Caden, Adrian and Aiden, you’re just showing that you have no access to a good baby book. Try this link instead. 

2. You don’t want hard to sound out names. I know you love the name “Xiantelle” but your visual reader who is trying to figure it out this name in their heads will stumble every time they see it. Do them a favor, change it so something that isn’t so taxing mentally. We want our readers to be thoroughly engaged in our writing. If we force them to pause and think, “now how do I pronounce that?” it’s just distracting. If that last link won’t help you with sounds, try this one instead. 

3. You don’t want historically inconsistent. So you want to write a 18th Century love story? Your romantic interests won’t be named Heather and Brandon. They won’t. Do your homework. This handy link can help you find good names for your time period. Don’t like my advice, fine, but behind their backs, your readers are calling you a name. It’s “too lazy to do the research”.

4. You don’t want extreme emotional connection. There are some names, let’s see Adolf and Hilary and Cher come to mind, that have extreme emotional connection to the world. Even if you were just a baby when the Clintons were in office or kind of think we should be over WWII, your readers have these same emotional ties too. The name you choose for your main character needs to be as free as possible from any baggage so that your reader than fully concentrate on your awesome character. You know, Kanye!

5. You don’t want a lead female whose name starts with a K.  Wait a minute  . . . .what? No, you don’t. Okay, you can have one if you want, but there’s this trend (one that I am totally conflicted by since my first name is Katharine) that there are too many strong female leads that have a K name. I can totally see why authors would do this. With a K name you get a “kickass” feel. I know I do. This writer explains why you may want to rethink it.

6. You don’t want to stray too far from genre. Okay so your gritty mystery/thriller should have names that come from the street — whether that street is Detroit or Tokyo or Istanbul. Your romance should have cheerful, attractive names, maybe even trendy ones. Your science fiction can get away with creative spelling if you don’t use numbers and dashes. If you are a genre writer, then there is an expectation of the kinds of characters you have. Make sure the name is consistent with this, because no matter how much your character will change in the story, the name will basically stay the same. Your reader is more likely to have a positive connection to the character if you’ve named him/her in a way that’s congruent to everything else in the story. Writing fantasy? Check this out.

7. You don’t want obvious symbolism. Unless you do. As much as I appreciate a good symbol, I think if you name your villain Cruella DeVille, you’re slipping into the two- dimensional. A cartoon. Most writers aren’t that obvious. Most stories don’t necessarily need name meanings attached to the characters — it just adds work for the writer and is rarely noticed by the reader. But if you’re not convinced. 

8. You don’t want to make anyone mad. Really. You don’t want to use the actual name of anyone if you are going to portray them in a negative light. Your ninth grade history teacher did do those awful things that need to be written about, but you don’t need to be sued over it. Either change their name or get permission. If you’re like me, the idea of speaking on the phone so intimidating, it’s better just to change their name, go with Bill Smith if you can’t do any better. If this is too painful, then change the book to nonfiction or investigative journalism and call a lawyer.

9. You don’t want to be culturally inconsistent. Put some thought into the socioeconomic status, the education and the heritage of your character before you name them. There are always exceptions, but many names have a cultural connotations that must respected. In fact, some people are having trouble getting jobs because of the bias that is connected to their name. Choose carefully.

10. You don’t want to hate it. You will type and retype and retype that name a gajillion times before the entire manuscript is over. You need to make sure it fits. In story sculpting, no decision is permanent. You can always change your mind, so even if you’re 250K in and feel like your Simon needs to be D’Brickashaw, do it. But make sure your reasons are justified, your character is consistent with the world around them and it’s the best fit for the story. Oh, and always spell it correctly.

Got name advice? I’d love to hear it!

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.


  • Patricia Lynne

    My biggest problem when coming up with names if I’ll get stuck on one letter. If I have a character named Jason and I need to figure out another name, J names all pop into my head. I usually end up googling baby names to avoid that.

  • Laura Roberts

    Great list of naming “Don’ts”, Katherine! There are definitely a lot of repetitive names out there, particularly if you read a lot in the same genres. I’m writing a mystery at the moment, so I was looking for a good, memorable name for my sleuth for the longest time. Ultimately, I was inspired by some local place names here in San Diego, as well as my sleuth’s former profession (stripper), to come up with Venus Delmar. Hopefully it’ll be as memorable as Sherlock Holmes one day. 😉

  • giffmacshane

    Ah, yes, #3 & #9 bring to mind a certain movie where the Protestant daughter of an Anglo landlord in Ireland is named “Shannon”. Never, ever would that girl have been named after an Irish river. Anglos in Ireland always gave their children English names. After hearing that, I took great pains to notice every other inconsistency in the movie. No way I want my readers doing that!

  • Joy Pixley

    Great list! I’ll add mine: if you’re writing in your own speculative world and you have characters from two distinct countries/cultures/languages, make sure their names sound like they’re from different languages! (Oops.)

  • Janelle Gabay

    Great information. Thank you. I did your number one, but luckily an editor pointed it out to me before it was too late. I find myself falling into the repetitive sound or letter trap all the time. I didn’t know K female names had been used so much, that’s interesting.

  • Beth

    I gave a con man character the surname Kort, which means “trusted counselor.” I doubt any readers will get it, but I don’t think it’s too hokey.

  • Scar

    My biggest issue with naming characters seems to be with making sure I don’t choose names already used in popular books. I’m sure there’s a list of popular characters somewhere but definitely important to do research before falling in love with a name.