The Art of Character Naming

Cornelius Cornwall stepped into the corral, tipped his Stetson low, and headed for the proud black stallion held by ropes by two of his men. From the look in the stallion’s eyes, Cornelius knew he faced a hard day of breaking ahead.

Maybe it’s just me, but the name “Cornelius” doesn’t fit with the image in my mind of a rough, tough cowboy. “Cord” would, or “Dexter,” or “Wade” would, as more fitting examples. The point is you need to really consider what all goes into choosing a proper name for your characters. Personally, I think choosing a character’s name is harder than choosing your own child’s name.

Here are some things to consider when deciding on a character’s name:
Race or ethnicity
Time period in which he/she lives
Personality traits
Ease of pronunciation for the reader
Role in the storyline: hero or heroine or villain
Possibly the meaning of the name
How the character feels about his/her name

For help with choosing a name there are dozens of baby name books available, name lists online, phone book listings, etc. The following are three of my favorite book sources for picking names, all of which are being added to the WARA library:

Dictionary of Surnames by Basil Cottle
The Name Book by Pierre Le Rouzic
The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon


Rox Delaney said...

Naming characters IS tricky. It's even trickier when it comes to different publishing houses and editors, because not only is there a chance the title may be changed, but a character's name may be, too.

Ellie in A Saddle Made For Two was orginally Tiny in Cowboy Over a Barrel. I was sure I'd be asked to changed Jules or Tanner in The Rodeo Rider. Nope. Instead, the heroine in the next book got the change. And that was a tough one, because the name had been hard to come by, discovered while on the way to a writers' conference in Branson, MO, while sitting at a stoplight in Arkansas City. The heroine was named after the cross-street, Bliss. ::grin:: Now she's Kate. She's a lot like Taming of the Shrew's Kate, so it was okay. Her sister in the next book--still waiting for approval--went through several name changes before being submitted, all because Bliss became Kate. ::sigh::

The moral of the story is not to become too attached to the names you give to characters...which is almost impossible to do.

Penny Rader said...

I love baby name books. I've been looking through mine the last few days. I now know my hero and heroine's first names, but I don't know their last names yet.

It hasn't happened to me often, but every once in a while, I'll be writing along and discover one of my characters didn't like the name I chose and has picked a different one.

Rox, when you have to change your character's name and still have to write the book, can you leave the original name in there while you're writing and then use 'find and replace' afterward?

Joan Vincent said...

Naming characters is harder than naming your own children! For one thing there are so many more of them. I had never deliniated the considerations for a name--thank you for such a concise list Starla. I usually hone in on the meaning of the name more than anything. I like the Writer's Digest book Starla mentioned and also use

Rox Delaney said...


Find and Replace would generally work, and I've done it some, but only in what's already written. That could come back to bite a writer.

When Kate & Trish's aunt introduced them to Dusty, she originally said, “These are my nieces. This one’s Bliss and that one’s Harmony.” (Skip a short paragraph in the heroine's POV.) “You’ll find they’re aptly named,” Aggie said, with a chuckle.

Works great with Bliss and Harmony. Not so much with Kate and Trish. LOL

The character and the character's name needs to be deeply ingrained in my brain, so Find and Replace doesn't work well for me, although it might work for others.

Starla Kaye said...

I have never been asked to rename a character or change a title, which I'm very pleased about. But my publishers are different. When I did an early re-write on Whiskey's Rebellion, I tried to change her name (which is really only ner nickname anyway) and it just never worked for me. Luckily I eventually published the story with Whiskey as her name.

Pat Davids said...

I've been asked to change a name or two in the last ll books, but not often. I keep a baby name book handy where I've highlighted the names I've already used so I don't use them again. (I tend to like the same ones.) While I was working, I began using the first names of coworkers for my heroines. People got a kick out of that.

I was told one name was too old-fashioned (Pamela) so I started researching the most popular names for the year my hero or heroine were born.

For my Amish books, I used the obituaries from newspapers in Ohio to find Amish first and last names.

Rox Delaney said...

I've only been asked to change 2 names, too, and was given the choice both times of changing either the hero or heroine. It takes a while to adjust, but rarely think of the first as it was before the change, and the second is getting easier, although I do think she'll always be Bliss somewhere in my heart.

Now for a link. The SS administration has a great website for name hunting. It lists the popularity of names for each year for I don't remember how far back.

Yes, Pat, I've been known to panic now when I haven't begun to plot and don't know where I'm going.

Penny Rader said...

Great idea, Pat, about highlighting the names you've already used. I have found myself using the same name, or a version of it, more than once.

Pat Davids said...

There used to be an OB-GYN doc whose first name was Cornelius. He always offered to wave his delivery fee if anyone would name their child after him. He never got any takers.

Deborah said...

I love naming characters and have never really had any difficulty with it. The name usually comes to me right along with the face. The only character I remember having a hard time with was a super-jock basketball coach. I wanted an usual name but one that sounded like this guy had been born destined to be a jock. You should know he was not the hero--he was, in fact, the ex-boyfriend. I found his name, Herschel, on a street sign. Whenever I see that name I automatically think sports, so it worked for me. And, if the truth be know, I've had a hand in naming at least one of Pat's characters. But I won't tell which without her permission. But if anyone else ever needs help naming a character, give me a call.

Rox Delaney said...

Ha! Herschel! I love it.

The hero in The Truth About Plain Jane was called Trey. His real name was Buford Brannigan III.

Another hero in a book that may someday soon be re-plotted and revamped has a hometown football hero named Jaz. Real name? Jasper.

Bliss's name (which is no longer) came from a street sign on my way to a conference in Branson. I'm thinking Arkansas City maybe, but somewhere along that route.

I once had a contest judge tell me that a heroine named Molly just wouldn't cut it. Too old fashioned.

Some H/S editors prefer simpler names, not cutesy ones. Once that's learned, there are less changes.