Writers spend a lot of time working on their stories, especially on naming their characters.

I read a tweet a little while ago about a writer who spent hours searching for the most suitable name for one of her characters. She just couldn’t make her mind up. Nothing seemed to fit. And what did I find in the comments? More writers sympathizing with her plight, and I, of course, was one of them. Some parents spend countless hours debating what to name their children, and in a similar fashion, so do many writers when it comes to their characters. Character names matter, too—especially where main characters are concerned. However, are they something we writers should spend hours poring over?

For me, there’s always the thought that a name may be the first trait readers judge a character by (when I introduce them by name), so if the name doesn’t suit the character, the reader may not initially get the right impression of them or be able to relate the name with their image of the character. I’ve observed that a lot of writers choose names with the intent of emphasizing certain aspects of their characters. I do, too, and I once spent three hours researching the meanings of different names just so I could make sure I chose a name that fit the message I wanted to send through a character.

The problem is, whether a name works or not is largely subjective. A writer might feel a name is fitting for a character, but a reader might disagree. Some people just don’t care, so the name doesn’t have much impact on them. So, all the time and effort put into selecting the right name might amount to nothing for certain readers. Nevertheless, I think the time spent choosing a name is still worth something for those readers who will appreciate it and also for myself. As a writer, I know it’s harder for me to connect with my characters if I don’t feel their name suits them. I feel there’s one perfect name for each of my main characters and if they went by any other name, they just wouldn’t be the same. On the other hand, I don’t think it should take more time to find a name for a character than it does to write a scene, and pausing mid-scene to think of a name can completely throw me off track.

That’s why I started compiling my own personal list of names and their meanings. Ideas for names often just come to me—usually when I’m not trying to think of them. So, instead of letting myself forget them, I started putting them in a list that I can reference when I’m ready. Every so often, I set aside some time in my day to research as many names as I can and add them to the list. While researching, I also make sure names I thought I made up aren’t in fact used in other stories or by companies, and I make sure they don’t have certain meanings I didn’t anticipate. (For example, I thought I created a name and it wound up being a semi-popular brand of perfume, which is fine, but I wanted the name to bring my character to mind, not a perfume bottle. I make exceptions when the name stems from a more ancient root, but when I can’t find the origin and it’s used by a company, I tend to avoid it.) My name list is one of the most effective time-saving practices I’ve developed, so if you struggle with selecting a name at the spur of the moment, you might want to compose your own list to reference. Don’t forget to cross names out when you use them—but don’t erase them!

One name can sprout several others just by switching the letters around or replacing letters with certain similar-sounding letters. This is especially useful in fantasy and sci-fi, since strange names aren’t out of place in those genres. Anagrams are incredibly useful, and they dont take long to create. For instance, take the name “Wendy.” You can turn that into “Endwy,” “Nedwy,” “Edwyn,” and so many others. If you prefer a name similar to “Wendy” but want to make it more unique, you could change it to “Wendi,” which looks different on the page but can have a similar pronunciation. This is a great way to recycle names so that you can make the most of them. Unless characters are twins or related some other way, I would think it strange to see “Wendi” and “Wendy” as two separate characters in the same story, but you could still do it or save one for another work. This is also a good way to help your characters stand out over characters of the same name in other authors’ works. Great minds think alike, so it’s easy to accidentally select a name that’s already been used. That’s part of why research is so important.

Sometimes I can’t find a name on my list that suits a character. In these times, I have to use a placeholder name for the character until I’m able to find a suitable one. I don’t like doing this because it’s harder to connect with the character in the scene, but it does help keep the flow from cutting off completely. My word processor has “find” and “replace” features, and I use them to change all instances of placeholder names and any other names Im not happy with. It saves so much time and aggravation, and it takes most of the pressure off of me to find the right name at the moment I introduce a character.

The tips I mention here are also great for creating and compiling names of worlds, towns, cities, and other geographic features of stories. I use Microsoft OneNote for my list because I can link it to a Word document and it’s easy to alter, but there are plenty of other methods of creating a list. As long as it’s handy when you need it and easy enough for you to peruse, it should work. Other writers may operate differently, though, so it might not be for everyone. Perhaps you have some advice of your own regarding the topics I discussed here. If so, please share it in the comments below!