Coming Up with Character Names and Why They Matter

Doug Landsborough
April 23, 2024

When we dive into the world of crafting stories, the power behind naming our characters often gets overshadowed by plot twists and epic worldbuilding. But, for many characters, names act like a handshake and are the first way your readers are introduced to your fictional people.

A name isn’t just a label; it's a sneak peek into a character’s world. In this article, we're going to dissect why the names you choose for your characters aren't just placeholders, look at some factors to consider when naming your book’s cast, and explore different techniques to come up with your own names. 

By the time we're done, you'll see character names in a whole new light—beyond just picking something that sounds cool. (Don’t worry, they can still sound cool. Just cool and meaningful.)

Why Do Character Names Matter?

The name you give your character can feel innocuous but, in reality, can be more important than other seemingly trivial traits like hair color or handedness. Sure, they can be random or pointless, but I want you to—at least by the end of this article—take a moment to consider their significance.

Most importantly, names can do three possible things (from a storycraft perspective):

  1. Connect your character to an aspect of their backstory
  2. Set expectations for your reader
  3. Play a significant role in the plot

Let’s take a quick look at each of these.

Names as a Connection to Backstory

Especially when it comes to surnames, family names, or the like, a character’s name can create an instant connection to something larger in your world and thus provide information about their past without spending too much time on exposition.

This could be a knight with the name of an exiled royal or a college student whose last name carries a lot of weight at their school.

If you use a name for this reason, make sure you have taken the time to at least hint at why it’s important or plan to do so throughout your story.


Names to Set Expectations

This one is a little more niche, but your character’s name can set up expectations for your reader. This can border on cliché or too blunt, so be careful, and it might also be genre-dependent.

A name like Cynder Flamecaller was obviously born to be a fire mage in an epic fantasy. Pointdexter Jones is clearly the smartest kid in class.

These are too on the nose for most stories, but you get the point.

Names as a Plot Point

For some characters, their name could be a key point in the plot.

Like when two feuding superheroes both have… moms with the same name.

It makes me shake my head every time, but it’s forever enshrined in cinema. It’s okay to use names for a plot point, just don’t name them Martha. Please.

Factors to Consider With Character Names

Before you name your next character John Smith or Jane Doe and call it a day, let's pause and think. The era, setting, and genre of your story all play massive roles in naming your characters. 

Ethelred checks out as a medieval king’s name and thus feels at home in a fantasy novel. Naming someone the same in a futuristic sci-fi novel might feel out of place. Unless your world uses old school European naming conventions, which could be a fun differentiating factor.

Your names also need to vibe with the tone of your novel (which is often informed by those other elements). Imagine a dark, brooding anti-hero named Sparkles. Doesn't quite fit, unless you're flipping expectations on their head for a laugh.

The names you choose might be used in marketing materials, to convince readers to take a chance on your book, so keep that in mind when landing on a final name as well.

Not every name needs to carry this much weight, but they can. For more important characters, remember that it’s not just about what makes sense in the book but the impact it will have outside the pages, too.


Techniques for Naming Characters

Time for the good stuff. How do you even come up with these names in the first place? Tragically, there’s no secret sauce—and know that I hate that term, but it’s best for getting the point across—to coming up with the perfect name.

There are, however, multiple approaches you can take to finding it.

Brainstorm the Heck Out of Your Character

In most situations, your character’s name already exists somewhere in the world you’ve built or the story you want to write, you just need to find it. Take some time to think about themes or words that are meaningful to that character’s:

If you’re writing characters that incorporate real-word elements, use those elements to come up with a name that means something based on the above list, too.

If that doesn’t do it, don't shy away from diving into baby naming websites, historical records, or even foreign dictionaries. Mix and match pieces of the real world with parts of your fictional one to craft something unique yet understandable.

Use a Character Name Generator

I’m not above including this potential cop-out of an answer. Especially with the advent of more accessible (and coherent) artificial intelligence, using technology to come up with random names is better than ever. Or at least more feasible.

Realistically, most of what these generators output is okay. At worst, it’s a mishmash of overdone or confusing words.

But you can use random name generators as a starting point. Let them act as a source of inspiration and shape them into something more suitable for your genre.

A quick note that’s applicable everywhere but extra important with name generators: unique doesn't mean unpronounceable. If readers stumble every time they see your character's name, you might lose them before the first chapter ends. And random name generators can love their complicated names, especially in genres like fantasy.


Explore Naming Conventions

Take a look at how real-world cultures have created their own naming conventions. Languages have their own rhythms and patterns that can inspire your creations.

Notice how I said “inspire.” Don’t take a culture and apply it where it shouldn’t be. Be aware of clichés and stereotypes. Common sense should really reign supreme here.


Once you've settled on a name, take it for a test drive through your story. Does it fit? Does it clash? Is it the name of a character who's going to leave a mark, or is it going to be skimmed over? Pay attention to how names sound when they’re next to or near other names—take it from someone who has a series with Adriel and Arriel. Sure, they might sound different, but I now have to make sure they have distance between them whenever possible.

Revision isn't just for plot holes and pacing issues; it's also for making sure your character's names are the best they can be.

And hey, if all else fails, remember that naming your character is a journey of its own. Sometimes, the perfect name comes to you in the middle of the night or through an overheard conversation in a coffee shop. 

Be open to inspiration, and when it strikes, grab it with both hands.


The One Name You Should Know: Dabble

When you're crafting these unforgettable names and the characters they belong to, make sure you're using tools that support your creativity, not hinder it. 

Dabble isn’t like other novel-writing platforms out there; it is built for fiction authors by fiction authors, and comes with a host of tools to make writing a book less of a monumental task. Especially when it comes to creating memorable characters (with names!), Dabble has your back.

Not only do we have hundreds of free articles at DabbleU for you to hone your craft with, but Dabble is equipped with a dedicated space for your characters. Make their profiles as detailed as you want, keep all their backstory and relationship details in one place, and even organize them into casts—all while staying only one click away from your manuscript as you’re writing.

The best part is that you can craft all the characters you want with Dabble (and try all our premium features) for free for fourteen days by clicking here! You don’t even need to punch in your credit card deets.

There’s a name for a trial like that… awesome!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.