Skip to main content

Using Names to Develop Characters | NINC



Search by Category
Search by Author

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other word would smell as sweet.”

The naming of our characters runs the gamut. Our characters are “ours” and character names provide opportunities for authors to expand the emotion, impact, and resonance of their stories.

Or as Elizabeth Ann West, author of 25 books and a digital publishing professional for over a decade said, “A name is a shorthand code readers have to talk about the character. That code is a big factor determining if readers remember characters long after the book is put down or forget them entirely.”

Character names can allow for deeper characterization and conflict. Piper Huguley, author of historical fiction featuring African American characters and Hallmark’s Sweet Tea, teaches a course on character names. Huguley spends time researching her character names in order to create greater emotional impact.

“In my book, American Daughters, out next year, Alice Lee Roosevelt was given the exact same name as her mother who died two days after she was born,” Huguley said. “How do you live with the same name as a ghost? Who was your mother? With a name her own father refused to call her? These things matter to how someone develops.”

Huguley uses names to convey things to her readers, such as how her characters fit into society.

“In the U.S., where we are under the illusion that we are able to completely create ourselves, that marginalized people have decisions to make regarding naming their children to ‘fit in’ or to not fit in. For example, since the 1980s many people have given girls names traditionally given to boys. This is not a new thing (Beverly, Shirley, Joyce, and Leslie were all boys’ names in the early 1900s) but the increase of what onomastic scholars call ‘crossing over’ means that parents saw hope and potential in the lives of their baby girls that didn’t exist before. When your character is not in a societal position of power, as many of mine are not, how does their family manage to still have hope and aspiration for that child?”

This is the power authors have when choosing names—they create emotion and impact. Names have connotations. I currently have a student who has changed her name to Katherine because she’s “Not a Karen.” And Dick, so noble on Dick Van Dyke, can be degraded to “Don’t be a Dick.” Ouch. If a character is named Sunny or Rose, we get positive thoughts immediately, even before we read on. So to create conflict, a character’s name might not even be something they themselves want.

Huguley said, “In my novel Sweet Tea, my heroine is named Althea. She considers that name ‘too Black,’ so when she leaves her small Southern town for New York City, she changes it to ‘Allie.’ This practice of ‘fitting in’ is part of how she manages to forget her Southern roots, and herself. Only when she is called back to being Althea again, and most especially to the nickname that her grandmother gave her, which is ‘Tea,’ does she find home for herself once more. It was the first time in my book that I used a character’s name as a reflection of their character growth. It also broke a rule in terms of character names—that of being consistent with names, but readers really seemed to tap into witnessing her character growth and how she changes from being Northern-based IP lawyer Allie back to small town Southern woman with a new vocation in life—Tea.”

West, who writes Jane Austen fan fiction, also considers each name as to its emotional impact.

“The biggest way a character’s name can create emotion and impact is how the name connects to other characters. In my Seasons of Serendipity series, the baby Lydia has out of wedlock, and who barely survives his birth, is named for Mr. Bennet, who is deceased at the beginning of the story. By making the orphan baby named after Mr. Bennet, the child no one wanted to be born is suddenly named in a manner that reminds them of another they loved deeply. The other characters develop a desire to protect the boy, and this carries over to the readers.”

First names and last names can be equally as important.

“In By Her Own Design, I didn’t spend as much time with Ann Lowe’s first name, because it was a popular name,” Huguley said. “How she changes her last names as she gains fame in her designing career is very meaningful. She goes back to being Ann Lowe at the end, the name that she was born with, which to me was an important reclamation for her in terms of who she is. Women at that time didn’t keep their maiden names. But throwing off Cone, from her pedo first husband, and West, from her unsuccessful second marriage, made meaning for her as a design legend. Then, there is also the way the name Lee chases her throughout her life—something that I did not make up, but made use of as she kept encountering the name of her abuser again and again.”

Some authors will use the names of real people. For instance, many such as David Baldacci auction off character names for charity. But authors slip in names for other reasons. Shelby, in my What Happens in the Air, is my best friend’s daughter’s first name. The Bien came from my co-worker whose husband pilots a hot air balloon and won one of the races mentioned in the book. I’m not the only one who does this.

West said, “Many times I name side characters either as anagrams of real life people I do not care for or to honor people I love and care about. Sometimes, if a friend is having a particularly tough time, I will sneak an Easter egg in there for them where a character has the same initials.”

Ernest Dempsey, USA Today bestselling author of archeological thrillers, did this for his best-selling Sean Wyatt books. The first name Sean is for one of his soccer buddies with whom Dempsey coached for a year. The Wyatt comes from the German teacher Dempsey worked with. As for the rest, he said, “I think I’m the only one who does this as far as villains and side characters go, but I look at soccer rosters from around the world and combine names.”

Boyd Craven writes postapocalyptic fiction relevant to current events. He says that he always teases people that he’s going to put them in his book “when they annoy me.” However, he often doesn’t because while “most are happy, I don’t want to be sued if they die horribly or do something a real person would never do,” he said.

To keep names straight, Craven keeps a story bible. “I have to consider if I’ve used the same name before because, let’s be honest, if you’ve written a dozen or more books in different series or worlds, you can’t avoid reusing names without some planning,” he said. “If I have, where and when? Will it confuse the reader if I use the same first name in the next book? Another consideration is the impact of the name. Can I use a last name of somebody who is in the news? Is there a general of an invading army who it’d be fun to clown on and make a character after him that is nothing like him for comedic value?”

To generate names, there are bookshelves worth of “name-your-baby” books and using online sources. Huguley uses and Others are at the end of this article.

West uses AI for her names. “I love the brainstorm feature on Sudowrite. If I am working outside of my main genre where most of my characters are predetermined (Jane Austen fan fiction), then Sudowrite helps me quickly generate a bunch of ideas at once. I like writing ‘ensemble cast’ stories, so I put down my ideas and parameters, and then AI tools assist in fleshing out an entire village’s worth of characters, ideas for backstories, and any flaws or emotional wounds for the main characters.”

Whatever choices you make as to your names, as Huguley said, “I think there is a lot of reward in spending time with this aspect of writing stories. It’s not as arduous as you might think.”

Online resources


Michele Dunaway writes happily-ever-afters in small towns with wineries and hot air balloon races. All’s Fair in Love and Wine, a second-chance romance, is book two of the Love in the Valley series, and marks the milestone of being her 25th book for Harlequin Enterprises, a division of Harper Collins. This article is from the June 2023 edition of Nink.

Share on social media