Writing a novel is a task filled with difficult choices. At every step of the process, authors are charged with figuring out the best possible version of events for their novel. This manifests in the broad-strokes outline, where authors figure out how the plot will work, and it carries all the way down to what authors name their characters. Especially their protagonist.
As any fan of Romeo and Juliet can tell you, there’s a lot in a name. In the real world, we might not think twice about someone’s name unless it’s particularly bad or particularly good. In fiction, though, nothing really means nothing. Every part of your story is an opportunity to add meaning, texture, and symbolism to your story.
So why not take advantage of that?
In this article, we’re going to talk about why your protagonist’s name matters, how to name your protagonist, and we’ll run through some examples of great character names.
This guide to protagonist names covers:
- Why does your protagonist’s name matter?
- How do you name your protagonist?
- Examples of effective protagonist names
- Need help fleshing out your protagonist?
Why does your protagonist’s name matter?
Names connect readers to stories
Your reader connects to your story through your protagonist. This means the name of your protagonist is the name your reader associates with the connection to your story—this is the person they’re going to follow through to the end, and what they’re called matters.
When can this go wrong? If you give your character a comically bad name, it will pull your reader out of the story. Instead of feeling invested in the world and in the character, your reader will be reminded they’re reading a book every time they see and scoff at the main character’s name. You don’t want that!
Names can carry symbolic meaning
Again, names can carry symbolic meaning. We’ll talk more about how to use this in a moment (you don’t want to go overboard), but giving a character a poignant name which relates to their personality and character arc can add a valuable layer to your story. Even if the reader doesn’t put that connection together, this will still make the book feel more thoroughly written and thought about.
How do you name your protagonist?
If you’re finding yourself grasping at straws for your protagonist’s name, here are some tips to help you out:
Use a name generator
Ah, name generators. What would we do without them?
A quick Google search will yield all kinds of results for character name generators. You can even find name generators specific to certain genres! While you might not love every single name the generator spits out, you might like the sound of the first or last name, and it might spark an idea for a different name.
This is especially helpful if you’re writing a fantasy novel with names that don’t sound like names from languages in our universe. A fantasy name generator can get the ball rolling and help you figure out what sorts of sound combinations and spellings you like, and which you don’t.
Consult historical publications
If you’re writing historical fiction, guess what? There are plenty of resources available online that will show you names popular in certain time periods and regions. A quick search for ‘girl names in Tudor England,’ for example, will yield plenty of results. If you’re writing fantasy inspired by a certain era in history, you might also want to consult resources like this.
If you’re using names from history, do a little research on those names. If you name your character ‘Queen Elizabeth,’ for example, your reader isn’t going to be able to shake the association with the living Queen Elizabeth.
Research baby names
If you’re writing a contemporary novel, there’s nothing quite like baby name websites. These are especially handy because they help you pick names that aren’t too obscure or too modern—unless it’s super pertinent to the story, you probably don’t want to name your character something super trendy, but you probably also don’t want to give your character a notably old or unstylish name.
Your protagonist’s name should, in general, blend in with your story. If a character’s name is particularly strange or unusual, there should be some sort of comment on it and there should be, for you as the author, some sort of reason for it.
Balance the first and last name
When I’m naming a character, I often find that the hardest part is finding a cohesive first and last name. I’ll find a good first name and a good last name, but they don’t go well together.
If you have a character without a last name, this isn’t an issue. Otherwise, you’ve got to think it through. If they have a middle name, take that into consideration, too.
Yes, sometimes people in real life have names that don’t mesh perfectly. But this is fiction, and even in the real world, those names are rare. Names like Victoria Lavender Applebloom will feel fake in your contemporary romance novel, especially if everyone else has an equally dramatic name.
Research the types of names people in different regions and from different upbringings have. When in doubt, go for a name that blends in and sounds nice over a name that’s ostentatious for no real reason. Steer away from
Fantasy authors, beware!
Fantasy authors have the difficult task of writing a world unlike our own. Naming characters can be difficult, especially for high fantasy writers. In a high fantasy setting reminiscent of Tolkein or George R. R. Martin, you won’t want to have names that feel too contemporary or too modern (even if those names were around in the medieval period—see the Tiffany problem for more on this). So, what do you do?
Often, fantasy authors create names that don’t exist. These might be funky twists on existing names, or they might be entirely new names. There’s not a right or wrong way to do it, but whatever you do, avoid overly complicated and unpronounceable names with no real-world corollary. I don’t mean names that are unfamiliar to American English speakers, I mean made-up keyboard smashes like Lfthughetha or Chavqarthikus. Things like umlauts and accent marks, too, should be used in such a way that readers can understand them.
If the reader can’t get comfortable in the protagonist’s point of view because they have no idea what their name is, it’ll create the dual problem of not being able to remember the main character’s name and not being able to relate as fully to the main character.
Don’t overdo the symbolism
While a protagonist’s name can be a great place to add some symbolic meaning to your story, too much can get cheesy real fast. If you’re writing a dark, edgy thriller, it’s going to feel fake and more than a little corny if our main character’s name is Dexter Darkblade or Shadow Stormslayer, especially if that story is set in an otherwise normal contemporary world. Lily Peaceflower is going to feel silly for your romance’s innocent, wide-eyed protagonist, and so on.
Keep your genre and target audience in mind. If you’re writing an action comic for kids, Shadow Stormslayer might be the perfect name for your villain, and Lily Peaceflower might be a great name for the princess who lives on a cloud. Generally speaking, cheesier names get harder to pull off the older your target audience is.
Check for cliche or tragic mistake
If you’ve settled on a name for your protagonist, save yourself a world of trouble and Google it before commencing. Maybe there’s a president with the same name and you don’t want that association, or maybe your character’s name is actually super cliched in the romance or fantasy or contemporary YA landscape.
Names should blend in, but they shouldn’t blend in so much that they feel trite. Check out other recent releases within your genre and see what sorts of naming conventions and cliches are popping up. Research within reading communities and run the name by some friends.
Examples of effective protagonist names
Let’s take a look at some fantastic protagonist names and break down what makes them work.
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
Katniss Everdeen is a character in a dystopian novel. This series is full of names that are very similar to names we have today, but they’re just a little bit different. Katniss is easy to recognize, pronounce, and understand, but it’s got a ring to it that makes it sound like it’s from another time.
Aza Holmes (Turtles all the Way Down by John Green)
Aza, as Aza herself points out in the novel, is a name that goes from the beginning of the alphabet to the end and back again. This has special symbolic resonance throughout the novel, which describes her struggle with OCD and thought spirals. In these thought spirals, she’s taken from her regular state of mind and down a rabbit hole of anxiety until the episode lets up—in a way, she’s being taken down her thoughts spirals and back up again.
Ned Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin)
A Song of Ice and Fire draws its names from the historical times periods which inspired it. This means many of the names sound familiar, like Ned, and even the ones that don’t feel rooted and grounded in the world itself.
Shadow (American Gods by Neil Gaiman)
Even though Shadow’s name might feel a little out of place at first in the contemporary landscape of American Gods, it doesn’t go overboard, and ultimately ends up feeling at home. This world is full of old gods, complete with their names, and it’s rich with fantastical elements. Shadow works because it’s a little odd, but it’s not jarringly strange.
Maximum Ride (Maximum Ride series by James Patterson)
The Maximum Ride series is middle-grade, which means Patterson already has some room to use more fun and less realistic names. It’s also a sci-fi adventure story, and the conventions of this genre allow for names that might not fly (pun intended) in a contemporary middle-grade book. Maximum Ride the character is a human-bird hybrid cooked up in a lab, and the rest of her gang has equally interesting names, so hers doesn’t feel out of place.
Additionally, Patterson uses a trick here to bring her name to a more relatable level. Throughout the series, she’s mostly referred to as ‘Max.’ Max is maybe a little unconventional for a girl, but it’s completely believable as a name, and this helps bridge any gap a reader might have in suspending their disbelief.
Also, and I can’t stress this enough—she can fly very quickly, so her name is Maximum Ride. I loved it in middle school, and I love it now.