A reader of Writing Magic, who is also an English teacher and clearly a fellow writer, has sent me a letter in which she puzzles over two topics, the first about names. At the end of her questions she wonders if she should just “get over” herself and recognize that names don’t matter much.

Without revealing your name, Thanks! I’ll respond to your second question next week. To everyone else, I’m always looking for blog topics, so I’ll be grateful if you put them in your comments.

To my letter-writer, please don’t get over yourself! Names do matter. Picking them shouldn’t be a random act. Naturally, tastes vary. I don’t like names that are obvious, the way they are in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, with characters named Obstinate, Pliable, Goodwill, and so on. I even dislike semi-obvious names. I named a selfish fairy Vidia, rather than Invidia, as had been suggested to me. To my ear, Vidia sounds exactly right, a mean name, but Invidia lacks subtlety, and it’s too long (see below).

I’ll never name a character Stormy because she’s moody. But I may name her Stormy if her sisters are Rain, and Skye. Then, if I’m going in a certain direction, I’ll name their parents Bob and Jane; in a different direction, Yearning and Insight. (Is Yearning the father and Insight the mother? Or vice versa?) Names are fun!

One way to get a name that has meaning without being obvious is to think what the character you’re naming is like. Suppose your character happens actually to be moody. Look up moody in the thesaurus and stare intently at the synonyms. Do you see anything that calls a name to mind? Melancholy – Melanie for a girl, Mel for a boy. Petulant – Petula. Also, I have no problem with neologistic names. (Kids, maybe you’d like to look neologistic up or see if your parents know it.) The synonym irascible (irritable) can become Rassie for a girl, Rass for a boy. It doesn’t trouble me if I’m the only one who gets it.

Nicknames can also take you where you want to go. That moody personality again – his name may be Michael, but his friends call him Mope, which may make him mopier.

I prefer names of one or two syllables, three the limit, unless I’m being funny, and then the more the funnier. Or unless there’s some other purpose for the long name. Even when I’m not going for humor, a character can have eight middle names, but the name for everyday use will be relatively short, and that goes for fantasy and science fiction. I hate names that I can recognize on the page, like Xlmaeiothipnm, but not pronounce.

Sometimes readers, even adults, get confused when two names are very similar. If the main character’s boyfriend is Brad and her brother is Bart, the reader may have to work unnecessarily hard to remember who is which. If you’re writing for children who’ve just learned to read, the experts suggest that all the character names start with a different letter.

Names should work for your story or book’s genre. If you’re writing historical fiction, you probably don’t want to name a girl Brianne or Aspen or a boy Denver or Brooklyn (all popular 2009 names, according to an online source). If you’re writing fantasy, the names Phil and Susan may seem out of place, unless they’re visiting from our world.

I have nothing against using the names of people I know. By chance, I happen to know three Mollys, but I won’t hesitate before naming a character Molly. However, if my friend has an unusual name, I may hesitate, and I may ask the person’s permission, especially if the character is going to torture squirrels. I did name a character after a relative who has an usual name. This relative gave me permission, and the character is not only good, but also my favorite in several books, and yet my relative has not been entirely pleased. So you never know.

Also, pay attention to the names of the people you meet. Write down the good ones (probably not right at that moment!), so you won’t forget.

Sometimes having a naming theme helps narrow down your choices. The book I’m working on now began by being based on Perrault’s version of “Puss ‘N Boots,” although it’s moved away from that. Perrault was French, so I decided that all my names should be pronounceable in French. I know un peu French, so some of the names are Anglicized versions of actual French words. A few readers will catch on, but most won’t, and I don’t care. I get a chuckle out of it.

Which is the point. You get to pick. You are the final authority. Make yourself happy. Even if you don’t use a name you like, save it. It may come in handy in another story.

  1. Thank you. I used to keep a name journal and threw it out, and have regretted it ever since. I was writing and stuck at a certain point. When I got the character's name correct I was able to move along with the story. Apparently his name was VERY important. Names are difficult, yet very fun. I agree.

  2. I love names. Sometimes I write simply because I get to use them.
    I am one of the few people in the world who can speak the launguage Cre-on-de-en. I take advantage of that. When I make names I always pick one word that describes my character the best, then I translate it. After a bit of tweaking I always end up with a name that fits my character like a glove. One of my favorite names is Dejhizi, which comes from the word just. One day I was feeling musical and I got the names Baladdi and Djarium Lyriss. The names may seem strange, but I love them.


  3. I look up names with a certain meaning for characters as well. It's a great tip! Even if a reader doesn't get it, another benefit is that I think it helps me think about the personality of the character more.

    I also find movie credits to be a great place to find unusual names.

  4. Hello! I am a big fan of your books. My favorite is Ella Enchanted, but I also love the Princess Tales and Two Princesses of Bamarre.
    I just found your blog a couple weeks ago, and I have been showing the posts to my sister, who likes writing stories.
    I was wondering, could you tell me how Lorelei is pronounced? Is it Lor-i-lay?
    Thanks for writing!

  5. Hi! I really like your books! My favorite book so far in my whole life is 'The Wish'. I was just wondering, could you make a 2nd book of 'The Wish'? I just can't get it into my head how Wilma will survive through her next years at Elliot without being popular? What if the old lady grants Suzanne a wish?
    Your books are the best! Now since I've finished reading 'The Wish', I can't read anything else. Everything seems so boring to me in comparison to 'The Wish'.
    Thanks for writing such awsome books! I can't wait yo read another one!
    -MG, your big fan

  6. This is a rather old blog post of yours, but I'll comment anyway.

    These are all great naming tips! I use a baby naming book all the time for 'normal' character's names (or at least humans'.) Puns are fun with secondary character's names, or maybe even a continuing theme. In one of my stories, all of the character's names (except the main character's) had some relation to a Beatles song: Jude, Rita, Mr. Kite, Dr. Robert, Eleanor, Lucy, Penny, etc.

    I was wondering what way I could go about writing names for fantasy creatures. Usually I just pick a letter to start with and then scribble something on a piece of paper and try to make out letters. I've read your tips in Writing Magic, but I still haven't quite been able to grasp it. Any ideas?

    Thanks much!

  7. I love naming characters!

    I believe that choosing the right name for a character is probably the most important part of writing (right?!). Many times I have chosen a name, tried to use it in multiple sentences, yet since it is not the right name everything comes off as unbelievable.

    I also enjoy naming characters unusual names. In my first, finished short story (question: It was over 8500 words. Is that too long to be a short story? I know that it's to short to be a novel.) I named my main character January Houston. The other characters in the story have relatively recognizable names, other than one of the protagonists, Lyric (and the setting was at a performing arts summer camp). In another of my stories, I worked off of someone else's novel, Rick Riordan's The Lost Hero (I enjoy this one better than the Red Pyramid, mentioned before on this blog.) Isn't it great when you can take someone else's setting, plot and characters yet make it your own? (It's not plagiarism if you don't show anyone, right?!) I named my demigod Cressida, after the heroine in Homer's Ilead. She is a daughter of Persephone, but obviously doesn't know it yet. As you can see, I LOVE unusual names that you can pronounce. 🙂

  8. Children's fantasy writer Brian Jacques often used names that were English words translated to another language. For example, his character, Verdauga Greeneyes's first name was taken from the Latin word Verde, which means green, and auga, which means eye in some other language. So essentially, Verdauga's name is actually "Greeneyes Greeneyes."
    Another of his characters is Mara, who is rather bitter against her adoptive father. Mara is a Hebrew name that means "bitter".

  9. I love your books, I’ve reread Ella Enchanted more times than any 15 year old should have. Although I think that The Two Princesses of Baymarre is my least favorite. I sobbed my way through it when I was about 10. I have always been a very sympathetic reader. My dragon is named Meryl after my dog. When we got her, I recognized the name, but I couldn’t place it. Now I know why. 🙂

    I love names, and struggle with naming characters. I’ve used baby-naming sites and searched by meaning, which I found useful. My favorite names; however, I have found just in front of my nose. For instance, I found ‘Griffith’ inside a clock, and ‘Alfarata’ in a song, but then changed it to ‘Almarata’ because I got confused and decided I liked that better anyway. Other times, a good name can be found on a street sign, for instance, ‘Vandalia’ and ‘Winfield’ is a street intersection near my grandparents house.

  10. Dear Ms. Levine,

    This post has been pretty helpful! Thanks for the tips on names.
    The one that was probably the most helpful was the one about having character names look different.
    I was writing a book in which the main character’s name was Luke, and his best friend was Jude. Now that I think about it, even thought they’re both good names, it is a little confusing for readers. It even hurts my eyes a little bit looking at the two names in the last sentence!
    By the way, I wrote that book last year for NaNoWrimo. I’ve lost interest in it, but I may just get back to it.

    P.S. I had no idea you were actually the creator of the Disney Fairy series!

  11. StorytellerLizzie says:

    Dear Ms. Levine,
    I was wondering if you had any advice on when to know if a character’s name is too odd? In a fantasy story I’ve recently started working on again, I looked back on some notes a couple friends gave me when I asked them to beta read for me, and they told me I needed simpler names as they were “too long and hard to pronounce”. While I respect their opinion, I like the names I gave the characters too much to really want to change them; besides the fact that, to me, in a world populated by fairies, elves, and dragons (among other creatures) names like “Mary” or “Steven” seem out of place. If you, or anyone else, has any tips for odd names I’d really appreciate it.

  12. Hello,
    I have a character ( a girl ), and I am stuck for names. She is a feisty no nonsense sort of person. Please suggest some names.

  13. Dancer and Writer says:

    I agree with your Susan and Phil theory. That just sounds weird. The only problem is, i am seriously not good at coming up with names. i always have trouble with finding the perfect one! i did read your “Writing Magic” book and you gave some awesome suggestions on how to name characters. Now, i always do my character traits and looks before i make up my name. i do love the changing descriptions into names though. i need to start doing that. Thanks!

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