Posted by: nancycurteman | November 29, 2011

How to Select Names for Your Mystery Novel Characters


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A good deal of thought should go into selecting names for mystery novel characters. In fact, some authors don’t even consider choosing names until they’ve completed one or more chapters. They believe they become better acquainted with their story people as they write about them. Whether you decide to name your characters on the first page or half way through the book, here are some important things to consider.

Fit your mystery novel characters’ names to their personalities. A manly detective called Ben is probably more appropriate than one called Gaylord. It wouldn’t work well to call a sophisticated professional woman Candy. How does Bertha sound for a cheerleader? Names conjure up images in the minds of readers. It’s important to project the right image when the reader first meets the character.

Vary the look and sound of mystery novel character names. Mary, Marnie and Melanie look too much alike. Red, Jed and Ned all sound alike. Your readers will never remember who’s who. A better mix might be: Jed, Phillip and Jonathan or Mary, Flo and Elizabeth.

Explain unusual character names. I named one of my protagonists Lysistrata, Lysi for short. In my novel, Lysi explains that her parents taught university-level Greek literature and admired the strong lead character in Aristophanes’ play of the same name. They gave that name to their daughter who grew to be an assertive professional woman.

Provide authentic ethnic and foreign names. If your novel is set among characters from a foreign country or a specific ethnic group, take the time to research common names. A French protagonist might be called Pierre but not Pete or Wolfgang.  Billie Joe might work for a deep south setting.

Research names from a different period in time. Grantham would be a better 17th century male name than Dick.

Make the mystery novel character name age-appropriate. A child born today would be better named Alexis than the popular 1920’s name Virginia.

Avoid names that have associations. Your characters should have names that fit their own personal qualities, not those of a celebrity or infamous historical individual. Don’t clutter your reader’s mind with names like Adolf or Brittney or Oprah.

Careful consideration and research when selecting character names will make a big difference in the way your readers perceive your mystery novel protagonists and other story people. If you have additional strategies you use for selecting names, please add them to my list.

Other writing tips:

Developing Characters is No Mystery

How to Create Believable Characters

How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel



  1. How interesting. I agree, of course, especially about the names which look or sound similar. Another problem is too many nicknames. Ever read War and Peace?

    For me, oddly enough–or perhaps not so odd if you know me–I often get a name first, and then build a character, a concept, or even a novel around the name.


    • Interesting approach. I say if it works for you, do it.


  2. I had to change a character’s [last] name once because I discovered there was someone out there with the same last name and the same type of villainies. :-\ Was afraid of getting sued or something. Picking names is tricky in more ways than one.


    • I never thought of that aspect of selecting character names. These days authors have to avoid so many pitfalls. Good comment.


  3. Where can you get names? Try the phone book. Foreign names?

    Google the nationality (French, Arab, etc.) and “names.” Pick a sex.


    • Phone book. Great resource. Google is one of an author’s greatest tools—almost as important as the keyboard.


  4. If one uses a foreign name(s) in a novel, should they be italicized?

    Frank B


    • Frank, to answer your question: If one uses foreign names in a novel should they be italicized? The answer is no. They’re treated just like any other name. For example if an American is named Michele, a French name, we would never italicize it.


  5. Reblogged this on KarLynn Kay Erickson.


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