Naming Characters

From Keenan

Recently while working on a first draft, I realized that I had named several characters “TK” (To Come) which was getting confusing. So, when I ran into the fabulous Sybil Johnson, the author of Brush Up for Murder at Bouchercon, I asked her to guest write a blog post on the topic. And here is what she said:

Sybil Johnson

I enjoy naming characters. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I’ve met writers, though, who dread the process of coming up with yet another name.

Sometimes names just pop into my head. This was the case with my main character in my Aurora Anderson mysteries. I took Aurora from the princess in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, my favorite Disney princess film. For a last name, I decided a little alliteration was in order. And so, Aurora Anderson came into being. That made my series the Aurora Anderson mysteries, which I think has a nice ring to it. It’s also an easy name to remember and spell so people should be able to find it in internet searches without too much trouble. In the books, though, she generally goes by Rory. Only on occasion is her full name used.

While naming that character was easy for me, most of the time it takes more work to come up with names. I use all sorts of methods. In my first book, Fatal Brushstroke, I named Rory’s painting teacher, who she finds buried in her garden, Hester Bouquet. This was a bit of an homage to “Keeping Up Appearances,” a Britcom that has a character named Hyacinth Bucket. Hyacinth is always concerned about what others think of her. She wants everyone to pronounce her last name “Bouquet.” It sounds more refined. My character, Hester, is also very concerned with how she is perceived. Plus she was found buried in a garden so a “flower” word seemed appropriate.

A baby name book that lists the meanings of first names comes in handy. If you know a particular character has a certain personality, you can find a name that has an appropriate meaning. The Social Security Administration’s list of the most popular baby names for a given year is also a good source of first names. ( Figure out approximately when a character was born, take a look at the names and see if you find any of them interesting. You can also filter by state if where your character was born is important. I’ve often combined these methods by finding a name on the SSA’s site, then looking the name up in the baby book to see if the meaning seems right for the character.

For the last names of one of my characters, I consulted a list of patron saints. I needed a name for my fire chief. Florian is the patron saint of firefighters so my fire chief became Chief Florian. I also have a book that lists last names and their origins.

Sometimes, especially in the case of short stories, I’ll do themes. I recently wrote a story that is set in a library so I looked at names of people who are related to libraries. Benjamin Franklin founded the first lending library in the U.S. so I used Franklin for the last name of one character. Melvil Dewey created the Dewey decimal system so I used both of his names as last names, changing the spelling slightly. I also grabbed some last names from a list of the Librarians of Congress and used Beverly Cleary’s last name since she was a librarian.

Whatever names you choose, be sure to keep track of all of them so you don’t reuse a name or have two that are too similar. For each story I write, I list on a piece of paper each letter of the alphabet, one letter per line. When I decide on a name, I put it on the appropriate line. e.g. Martin would go on the “M” line and “Green” would go on the “G” line. That way I can easily see if I have too many names starting with the same letter of the alphabet.

What I didn’t do, but should have done from the beginning, is keep track of all the names in each book in my series in the same document. That way I don’t accidentally reuse a name from book to book unless it’s a recurring character. One of my early readers of Ghosts of Painting Past pointed out I’d used a name before for a different character. I ended up looking through every book in the series and listing all of the names in one document so I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Naming characters should not be an arduous task. There are ways to make it fun and interesting to the writer. Use some of the methods I mentioned or come up with ones on your own. However you come up with your names, be sure to have a method from the beginning to keep track of them. It’ll save time and a few headaches.

Sybil Johnson

Sybil Johnson’s love affair with reading began in kindergarten with “The Three Little Pigs.” Fast forward to college where she continued reading while studying Computer Science. After twenty years in the computer industry, she decided to try her hand at writing mysteries. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Sybil now wields pen and paint brush from her home in Southern California. Visit Sybil at

About Brush Up On Murder:

Love is in the air in the quiet Los Angeles County city of Vista Beach, home of computer programmer and decorative-painting enthusiast, Aurora (Rory) Anderson.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, residents are training for the annual Love Run and  expressing their undying affection for each other by attaching love locks to the pier railings. But a string of bank robberies is ruining the romantic vibe.

While Rory helps friends prepare for a Valentine’s Day wedding, a body is found and the groom is implicated in the murder. Convinced of his innocence, Rory puts her heart into the investigation. Can she identify the killer before someone else encounters their own brush with death?

Pre-order Links for Brush Up On Murder

(available in Kindle, Kobo and Nook e-formats as well as Trade Paperback)


Amazon Kindle:

Amazon TPB:


B&N Nook:


  1. Love these tips! Thanks for stopping by.
    I use DG (dead guy) and S1 (suspect 1) as placeholders until something says, “hey, here’s my name.”

  2. I find I can’t write a scene until I know my character’s name. It might change, but it has to be the right name. Sometimes I stall for an hour while I try to come up with a name that fits. It can’t be the name of anyone I know well, definitely nobody in my family, and it has to have the right connotations. I can’t help that!

  3. Great ideas. This was a chore for me for a while until the day I acquired a 2008 Columbus white pages. That’s my go-to for nearly all my names now; I just open a page randomly for a first name, look elsewhere for a last name, and voila.

  4. Thanks for joining us today, Sybil. Most of my names have come with the character but occasionally the name doesn’t fit as the story unwinds or I can’t seem to remember the name as I write and I will change it to suit the character as I now know her. I do have to think about last names. They need to go with the first name like your Aurora Anderson so I consider the character’s background and other things that might have a bearing on it. I use obituaries and depending on the character, I’ll refer to, online sources for a list of surnames from a particular country.

    Character names are important to me, not only mine but those in the books I read. I’ve put several books down because the main character’s name doesn’t fit for me and I’m annoyed every time I read it.

    1. I find if I try to change the name, I won’t remember the second name. The first one is engraved in my head. And I have two names scattered everywhere for the same character. I’m seriously thinking about picking out the names before I start writing in my outline phase.

    2. I notice that for last names I tend to choose ones that are of English or Scandinavian origin, perhaps because those are the ones I’m most familiar with. I’m trying to branch out to other parts of the world.

  5. This was such a fun idea for a post, Keenan and Sybil. I loved it. I laughed at the memories of Mrs. Bucket. I would like to add that I always try not to use the same first letters for names in each manuscript. In the first manuscript I ever wrote, I seemed to be stuck on names beginning with either W or E. I’m glad I caught and fixed it before sending it to agents and publishers.

    1. I’m all about names starting with “M.” It was a couple of books before I started keeping a character list in alpha order. Was thrilled when I had a chance to use “X.”

  6. Great post! I love coming up with names and rarely change them once chosen.
    Since my series is set in the UK, I often use census records, lists of unusual or rare surnames, and sometimes names from a TV series credits or even the National Trust. I always try to tie the names in some way to the character.

    1. I love watching British TV show credits for the names! (The grandson thinks I’m odd.) They have so many wonderful names. I like the census records for my historical series set in Massachusetts. And just for snooping, to be honest. It’s fascinating who is living with whom, what they do for a living, where they came from, if they read and speak English, what their first language was.

      1. I do the same thing, Keenan. I can’t tell you the number of names the Inspector Morse credits have inspired. Thank you for joining us, Sybil!! We were on a panel at Malice Domestic a while ago.

  7. Often names just come to me. It’s intuitive. But for non-English names, I use the Internet. I have trouble with spelling: I have a characters Jen and Jenn, Issy and Izzy, and so on. It’s the nicknames that make me crazy, yet I like them.

    1. Candace, Tuition is the best. If it resonates with you, it works for the character and will stick in the readers’ minds. I had an Iggy in one of my books, short for Sister Ignatius.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *