Do you know how hard it is to name characters in a novel?

name characters, bad guys

As if it wasn’t hard enough to name actual children, now I need to name characters, a whole crew of imaginary friends who live in my head. It only took me a month or two to pick out names for the main characters. I could pick out a name, roll it around in my mind, and then accept or reject it based only on my gut feelings.

Then I moved on to secondary characters, which got a little trickier. Some of you will find your names in the book simply because you have good names and it’s easier to steal what your parents gave you than to think it up myself. But have no fear; your characters mostly just mull around, propping up the main characters. No reason to sue me.

Writers are always watching. Behave yourself.

Some of you are going to find yourself in the book, under cleverly disguised names. This is the hazard of knowing a writer, and I just can’t help it. Behave yourself and everything should turn out okay, but know I’m watching… (Insert sound of 300 people unfriending me on Facebook and leaving the church and uninviting me to the family reunion.)

But then, because this book is not written for six-year-old girls, we need a sprinkling of bad guys. And this became unexpectedly gut wrenching. The character development of the bad guys became dicey enough, because I don’t want any friends or family to feel like I secretly hate them and will express my disdain through the permanent, written word.

Trust me, if I’m mad at you, you’ll know long before you read the book.

Once I’d wrestled with the actual characters, I had to come up with names. First of all I have to use names that make sense for the audience, which will mostly be made up of people named Jennifer, Jessica, Sara, and Kris, because 90% of my friends have these four names. So the characters can’t be named Slate and Ember, no matter how cool that may be. The readers would be confused and wonder why I was naming full-grown characters after babies born yesterday. Babies born to people with highly developed imaginations, I might add.

Neither can the characters be named Gertrude or Mildred, Walter or Hubert. That would cause the reader to scratch her head and wonder why I’d used nursing home residents to fill the pages.

Here. Let me prove my point:

As the sun sank further over the edge of the lake, Gertrude and Mildred waited, and waited, on the dock. Their legs hung over the edge, dangling over the water. Gertrude’s shorts were short enough that through the frayed edges of the hem she could see the tattoo she must have gotten last night. Must have been a wild night, since she couldn’t remember anything after Hubert handed her that last Solo cup at the bonfire. She vaguely remembered a ride on the motorcycle through the dark streets, hanging on to him for dear life as they tore up one hill and down the other…but none of that explained why she now had a wolf tattooed to her left thigh.

Mildred caught her staring at the artwork. “Could be worse, Gertie.” She moaned and dropped her head into her hands like she’d been doing all day, since they’d woken up in sleeping bags in Mildred’s childhood treehouse.

“Tell me how this could be worse, Mil.”

“At least you didn’t get a tramp stamp. There’s no shame in a wolf on your thigh.”

“Shut up, Mildred.” The skin under the wolf burned like she’d spent the night with a thousand fire ants. What had she done?

You see the problem, yes? If I choose to name characters the wrong thing, the whole story becomes stupid. Even stupider than that example up there.

I can’t go too old, I can’t go too modern, which leaves a nice big swath of names in the middle. Names that are already attached to people I know. So the dufus who gets hit by a car? What am I supposed to name him?

Doug? No, I went to high school with a Doug.
Matt? No, I know at least two Matts and one of them is teaching my kid.
Cain? No, already been used.
Satan? Too obvious, and already in play.

Please, help me out. No explanations are necessary, but in the comments below throw out some names you’d like to name characters. But, you know, if the explanation is interesting, we all might like to hear the story…

A good name is more desirable than great reaches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold. (Proverbs 22:1)

15 Comments on How to Name Characters in Your Novel

  1. running4lorraine
    May 10, 2014 at 2:56 pm (4 years ago)

    Kyle says “Trevor” (in a deep voice I may add). Here is my list; Calvin, Russell, Rick, Shawn, Peter, and Mark. No reasons or explainations here. I apologize if you’ve already thought of these names.

  2. Jessie Clemence
    May 10, 2014 at 3:11 pm (4 years ago)

    Excellent, thank you!

  3. Anthony Baker
    May 10, 2014 at 3:27 pm (4 years ago)

    Female bad guys:

    Lisa DeYampert….ex-fiance. Need I say more?
    Mikayla Williams
    Rain Blackenthorpe
    Hillary Antideus

    Male bad guys:

    Barak Clinton
    Bruce Townsend
    Antonio Sooglavchi (my pen name in 10th grade – I even signed tests with it)
    Colonel Sanders

  4. Anthony Baker
    May 10, 2014 at 3:31 pm (4 years ago)

    Oh, and Lisa’s middle name is Renee (sp?). Would you like a suggested social security number and address, too?

  5. Jessie Clemence
    May 10, 2014 at 5:31 pm (4 years ago)

    Ha! You crack me up. Thanks.

  6. Cheri Fields
    May 10, 2014 at 5:54 pm (4 years ago)

    I would have never thought bad guys could be so funny!
    You could check into the names of actors who play them, people would be used to thinking of them that way. Otherwise I’d look for obscure names.
    BTW best of luck on the book. I *stink* at fiction, but making up stories is a lot of fun! Whatever you write is bound to be a hoot as well. 🙂

  7. Vincent Henderson
    May 10, 2014 at 8:45 pm (4 years ago)

    What you need are Mugshots from the mid 80’s into early 90’s and the names that accompany them.

  8. Gillian Cartier Hollett
    May 11, 2014 at 3:36 am (4 years ago)

    It sounds like it’s guy names you are after, so: Jared, Dustin, Tom, Derrick, Shane or William. Can you guess why. If you needed a girl name, I’d go with Briannon, Megan or Melissa.

    Also, I always thought last names would be tough because of the danger of inserting unwanted symbolism such as the super obvious “goodman” and “gravely.”

    May 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm (4 years ago)

    I find this challenging as well. One piece of advice is to not let it hold up the writing. You can always change the names later if something else comes to you.

  10. Jessie Clemence
    May 11, 2014 at 9:21 pm (4 years ago)

    True! And I’ve gotten some good ideas from the readers, so I might be changing a few names.

  11. Jessie Clemence
    May 11, 2014 at 9:22 pm (4 years ago)

    Thanks, Gillian! I’m sorry your difficulties have become fodder for the book. 🙂

  12. Jessie Clemence
    May 11, 2014 at 9:22 pm (4 years ago)

    Vince, you’re a genius!

  13. Jessie Clemence
    May 11, 2014 at 9:24 pm (4 years ago)

    We’ll see how it goes. I’m trying to get it together in time to take to She Speaks to meet with agents. But if I keep agonizing over every word, I might not get done until…forever.

  14. Jessie Clemence
    May 11, 2014 at 9:25 pm (4 years ago)


    I’m sensing some leftover hostility, Anthony. Just a touch of hostility. 🙂

  15. Anthony Baker
    May 11, 2014 at 10:26 pm (4 years ago)

    Maybe. A little.