Name That Character

by Jonathan Hedrick


Last year's blockbuster sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water has grossed over 2 billion dollars worldwide. That’s pretty remarkable for a film with only one previous installment in the franchise. Compared to 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, which had 21 films before it to build excitement, Avatar 2 could be considered highly successful. Despite their similar profits at the box office, one important factor leaves James Cameron’s beautiful story lacking. I cannot name one single character in those movies.

You might be asking yourself, “Why does it even matter if the audience can’t remember the characters’ names if the movie made almost 3 billion dollars?” From a storyteller point of view, it matters a lot! Sure, Neteyam, Lo’ak, Tsireya, and Neytiri (those are Avatar character names by the way) haven’t been around as long as, let’s say, Sherlock Holmes, Spider-Man, or even Harry Potter. However, I did have to Google one set of names in that previous sentence and not the other. Granted, the character names in Avatar are meant to replicate the alien world they live in, but in my defense, I also remember the names of characters from a galaxy far, far away like Chewbacca, Jabba The Hutt, and Grogu.


How, then, does one go about effectively naming their characters to make them memorable? It's not as easy as George Lucas makes it look, but I’ll share some suggestions that might help you find that unforgettable moniker for your heroic protagonist or sinister villain. Remember, at the end of the day, it's your story! If you want to give your characters unpronounceable names, by all means, go right ahead. I’m not saying that it won’t work. However, keep your readers in mind to avoid confusing or, worse, losing them.

It's common to feel a lot of pressure when locking in a name for your main character(s). A name can help the reader immediately identify what traits a certain character has. If you’re struggling at this point in your script, think about the mood you want your readers to feel when this character enters the scene. A well thought name can generate a feeling of trustworthiness or it can bring about fear and dread. For instance, Doctor Doom doesn’t really sound like a good guy. You don’t have to be so obvious when naming your character, but you should consider what you want your readers to focus on.


When formulating character names, try to analyze your options by experimenting with how they sound. For example, Peter Parker has that repetitive “p” consonant that can pop right off the panel and into the next page, but don’t overuse alliteration unless that’s the kind of sing-songy book you’re aiming for. Test your characters’ names by saying them out loud. Do you stutter when trying to pronounce them? If they come across more as tongue twisters then you might want to rethink what you’re going to call them. When your audience finds it difficult to read a name (or any word for that matter), they’re more prone to skim over it, which makes the story less memorable.

Another important factor in coming up with character names is establishing the meaning behind them. Let’s take The Matrix as an example. Why is Keanu Reeve’s character’s name, Neo, so perfect? First, it's short with only three letters. It’s easy to read and pronounce. Neo is also frequently referred to as ‘The One’ throughout the film series. When you rearrange the letters in ‘Neo’ you can spell ‘one.’ Then, there’s Neo’s infamous foe, Agent Smith. At first glance, it's not a very creative name. Typically that surname is lended to those with a common, nonspecific trait. However, that’s what makes ‘Smith' such an ideal name for an antagonist that can replicate itself into anyone else. Sometimes, keeping it simple is the smarter decision. 


When your audience finds it difficult to read a name (or any word for that matter), they’re more prone to skim over it, which makes the story less memorable.


A different approach to naming characters is to give them a prefix in addition to, or instead of, a first name (ex. Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc.). Much like Agent Smith, adding an affix can make an otherwise flat name much more exciting. This also serves to remind your reader who this character is. ‘Officer Jones’ might be an authoritative character like a soldier or policeman. ‘Father Duncan’ is most likely a priest and helps the reader imagine what the character looks like in his wardrobe even without being on the page. The same can work with suffixes (ex. Ph.D., Esq., III, etc.) to add a derivational element to signify something immediate about the character. 

Next, let’s talk about where to find some names for your characters. Baby books can be a good resource with a plethora of options and meanings to go along with them. Some might even include popularity, origins, and different ways to spell each name. There’s also a wide variety of name generators online to help you randomly decide a character’s name. Most of these websites allow you to add traits to your character such as gender, nationality, and even a religious background to help filter the results. You could also use what you come across in your everyday life. What names are you seeing frequently across social media, television, movies, and literature? Is there a name that keeps finding its way to you? Maybe there’s a reason for that. 

There are so many components when it comes to choosing names for the characters in your book. The story should be the driving force steering you in the right direction to help solidify a name. Genre, setting, and character traits should be considered as well, but don’t let the weight of this decision paralyze you. If you have to call a character “girl #1” in your first few drafts to keep moving forward, so be it. Perhaps, that character isn’t important enough to have a name. Don’t hesitate to refer to the mailman as just that, ‘the mailman.’ Lastly, have fun with it! This is what being a creator is all about.


Here are two links to name generators that we’ve used before and may be helpful in your character naming journey! – Metal Ninja Dojo Editorial

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