The Ins and Outs of Naming Characters

The Ins and Outs of Naming Characters


Kristin Holt | Q&A.

Q: How do you name your characters?

Part of the joy (and challenge) of writing historical fiction is finding the right name for characters. After all, mothers who delivered a bouncing baby boy in 1865 weren’t likely to name him Liam, Noah, Mason, Ethan, Logan…. oh, wait a minute. Maybe they would have. The Ins and Outs of Naming Characters

These are the currently listed top five baby boy names for the year 2015. A lot of them look like they might have been recycled from the nineteenth century. “Old fashioned” names are making a comeback. Don’t believe me? The most common names for baby girls in 2015 include: Emma, Olivia, Sophia, Ava, Isabella, Mia, and Charlotte. Now that a newborn royal princess was named Charlotte, it doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to predict a resurgence of popularity for the moniker.

It hasn’t always been this way. While working as a Labor and Delivery nurse in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I often asked new parents what name they’d chosen… and I’d often hear the same name over and over and over again. Then, baby names were fiercely era-specific. Think about the usage of Brittany (Britney, Brittani), Colt/Colton, and Kylie in the current 20 to 25 age group.

I guess parents like to be trendy. They also like to name babies after ancestors (if they like the name). Human nature changed all that much since the late nineteenth century.


Historic Names for Historic Characters

My most-used resource for naming historic characters are census records. Why? Not only will they provide an accurate, true-to-life listing of names actual parents gave their offspring in the year my character would have been born (because census records provide the ages as well as names and location of legitimate individuals), but they let me know the wide range of surnames actually found in my setting of choice.

I found it hard to come to agreement with my husband on names for our children (thank goodness they were born to us one at a time)… and it’s often just as difficult to name a character. The Ins and Outs of Naming Characters

Baby 004

Historically accurate or not, I can’t select just any name.

1)  Unless I intend for a real life individual (famous, probably) to make an appearance in my fiction, it makes sense to not take a matching first name and last name… I do my best to make sure someone with my chosen hero’s name didn’t actually live then.

2)  Some names are a turn-off to contemporary readers… even though historical names are making a comeback. Really, who wants to read about (or fall for a new a book boyfriend) named Cletis or Horace?

3)  The name I choose should match my hero’s/heroine’s personality… just as so many parents wait to actually see what their baby looks like to decide between names.

4)  As a reader, I find it easier to keep track of different characters if their names begin with a variety of letters and/or sounds… and they don’t all begin with an M (Michael, Mammy, Mary) or a K-sound (Christopher, Katherine, Queenie). As an author, I track the use of first letters and beginning sounds to minimize (if not eradicate) duplication.

5)  Just as stock images for cover art eventually become overused, so do character names. I don’t pay a great deal of attention to this, but if I’ve read about one too many Molly or Sarah or Elizabeth novels of late, I tend to avoid the overused and find something far less common. That’s how my heroine in Gideon’s Secondhand Bride

Kristin Holt | Book Description: Gideon's Secondhand Bride by Kristin Holt

ended up with the historically accurate (and uncommon) name of Permilia. This gal liked the diminutive Millie, which is common in my genre… but also true to the era.

6)  Once I’ve used a name in a book, I really shouldn’t use it again. This applies for more than just main characters. Why confuse readers into thinking a secondary character in one book has become a secondary or main character in another? I’ve already slipped up twice, and have name duplications. (**See my closing paragraph for a contest!**)


Readers Name Characters

Sometimes, I have a little bit of help in naming characters. Some fans thoroughly enjoy winning the privilege of naming a character. Winners of such drawings might select their own name, a name they particularly like, or a granddaughter’s name. Coming up, two of my heroines are named after a reader’s real-life granddaughters. I’m looking forward to the pleasure of writing the most sympathetic, appealing characters possible, in order to please this reader who loaned me the names of two young ladies she loves dearly.

I hope I’m up to the task. I can imagine how I’d feel to read about a fictitious character who had the same name as me, and how I’d respond if that character fell short of my expectations.

Kristin Holt | Book Description: Lessie, Bride of Utah by USA Today Bestselling Author Kristin Holt.

Kristin Holt | "Book Description: Josie, Bride of New Mexico, American Mail-Order Brides, #47, by USA Today Bestselling Author Kristin Holt.



  1.   Do you know which two character names I’ve slipped up and duplicated from one book to another (that wasn’t intentional, wasn’t referencing the same fictional person in the same series)?
  2.   REPLY to this post with your answer of two character names.
  3.   The FIRST response that correctly names my two duplications will win one autographed paperback (mailed anywhere in the world) OR one Kindle edition book–winner’s choice of titles in my book list.
  4.   This contest remains OPEN until I post the winner’s name and verify the correct answer…. so scroll down and read the replies!


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Updated January 2021
Copyright © 2015 Kristin Holt LC