Naming Characters


Have you ever had a hard time naming a character?

One of the conversations that circled my house on a recent Holiday was the subject of a mafia dude who got the hit put on him while he was in prison. His name was Whitey Bulger. In my mind, and other people’s minds as well: that is a name that screams “mafia dude!” It’s like he didn’t even try to hide his identity. I wish I had thought of the name Whitey Bulger.

To me, the challenge of naming a character is a fun one. Every once in a while, I feel like I discovered the perfect name for a character. When I do feel that way, I sort of do a little dance. Most of the time you’re just pulling names out of shadowy places. Am I right? If you write like me, then it’s true. Names can fit the character, or the character can fit the name, but that dichotomy of purpose doesn’t make the task any easier. Another element of the challenge is that you don’t want to name characters after people you know. People get offended at that. And they can get offended even if the character is heroic. So it’s much safer to use names that don’t relate to people you know.

I’ve used the name John a lot in my writing. I think that’s a difficult one to avoid since it’s such a common name (last name Smith, right?). The good thing about it is that it has so many variations, like: Jon, Jonny, Ian, Sione, Ivan, Johan, Joan, Johnette, Jane, Janet, and so on. There’s a version of the name John in every language.

One good way is to use Greek and Latin meanings to name your characters. This is especially good for last names. For instance, if I had a foreign character, I might fit them with the last name Exenos or Zenos.

A name can fit the character through the character’s traits. If the character had red hair, you could use one of the million and one words for a shade of red. Vermilion, Scarlet, Rouge, Crimson, Ruby, Maroon, Rose, Rosa, and so on.

Of course if you don’t like these ideas, you can use the phone book, right? What!? They don’t print those anymore. How’s a writer going to work in a world with no phone book?

Published by Kurt Gailey

This is where I'm supposed to brag about how I've written seven novels, twelve screenplays, thousands of short stories, four self-help books, and one children's early-reader, but I'd rather stay humble. You can find out about things I've written or follow my barchive (web archive, aka 'blog) at or follow me on twitter @kurt_gailey. I love sports and music and books, so if you're an athlete or in a band or you're a writer, give me a follow and I'll most likely follow you back. I've even been known to promote other people's projects.

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