Over the past month, I’ve been struggling to find names for characters in a narrative I am writing. Finding the right name for the main characters is vital. Does the name convey a sense of the character’s personality? Will it help readers to feel affection or sympathy for the character? And is there a name that will have the opposite impact on readers, leading them to perceive a character who is as dastardly as the villain I have in mind?

Some writers seem to do this with great skill. J.K. Rowling’s Draco Malfoy could never be a good guy – not with a name like that. Nor could Severus Snape. The sound of these names echoes with malice and evil. And yes, I know, Snape did turn out to be on the side of good, but with such a name we were kept guessing until the very end. Rowling’s main cast has a similar bent: anyone called Hermione Granger would have to be highly intelligent if a bit pompous; the name Ron Weasley has the connotations of a clown; and for a name that reeks of dependability and fortitude, you can’t go past Harry Potter.

Finding a good name for characters is a problem that I have seen students struggle with. Often they solve the problem by using the names of their classmates or teachers. This has quite a payoff in the short term. The class titters when the story is read to them. They ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and roll their eyes when the hero (insert name of the author) saves the class from the evil teacher (insert name of teacher)!

How To Help Young Writers Pick Character Names

Here are a few ideas that might help.

  • Provide name reference books. Baby name books, old telephone directories, and newspaper birth sections are all helpful.

  • Brainstorm likely names under categories: Heroes, Villains, Wise Elders, Clowns, etc. Keep these lists of names available in the classroom and add to them when new names are found.

  • Discuss ways that names can be adapted. For example, by respelling a name, the name can take on a fresh face.

  • Have students do a name-meaning search on the Internet. (If the students are too young to do this independently, you could make it a shared experience.) For example, search for names that mean strong (Brianna, Brian, Conall, Dixie).

  • Collect photos of people likely to be unfamiliar to students and have students work in groups to name each person. The people’s real names could then be revealed.

  • Talk about the names that authors have used in favorite books. Prompt students to think about what these names suggest to the reader and how they might do this themselves.

  • Look at made-up names by authors such as Dr. Seuss. Explore using sounds and nonsense words to make fantastical names. Keep these names on a list for future reference.

Anyway, I must get back to searching for a great name for my villain. How does Voldemort sound? Oh, that’s right, it’s taken. I’ll just have to keep looking.