Writing Resources for Naming Your Characters
Have you ever read one of those epic fantasy novels in which the magical characters can gain total control over any living being (or non-living object) simply by discovering its real and true name? I’ve read about ten of those novels.
What do you think is more perplexing, the fact that authors continue to use this rule of magic (even though it’s tired and ready to be retired) or the astounding number of unique names that writers come up with for all the characters in these stories?
Dubworthy or Dubless?
I have been known to spend hours pondering names and wondering how a writer managed to choose a name that so perfectly fit a character, especially characters that are iconic: Holden Caulfield, Harry Potter, Hamlet, Hanibal Lechter. And they don’t all start with the letter H: Ebenezer Scrooge, Mary Poppins, Sherlock Holmes, Gollum, Cinderella, Willy Wonka, Scarlett O’Hara. The list goes on and on. And it doesn’t stop with literary characters. Remarkable character names can also be found in movies, comic books, and on TV.
Think about the most famous, unforgettable, and compelling characters. They have names that are memorable, names that resonate with the character’s energy: Bond. James Bond. How do you forget a guy like that?
But here’s a better question. How does a writer come up with a name like that?
The Name is the Game
Let me be blunt. I suck at coming up with names. I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent pondering great names and trying to come up with handles for my poor, nameless characters. But names elude me. They do. So, what do I do when my fiction writing antics require me to name a character? Well, if I’m already in the throes of writing, I generally write the characters’ names generically and in all caps:
GIRL is walking down the street and freezes when she spots ANIMAL sitting in the middle of the road.
But I can’t avoid naming forever. The story is never finished until everybody is named, and I find that I can’t get very deep into the tale when I’m working with nameless characters. So, I do what any resourceful writer does. I turn to my handy-dandy writing resources.
The internet is always my first choice for research. I use an online dictionary and thesaurus. When I need a quick fact, I’ve been known to obtain it from Wikipedia (judiciously, of course) and I also use the open-source, online encyclopedia as a starting place to look for more credible research (they often have excellent annotations). And when I need a name, I’ve engaged the power of Google (a search engine that happens to have a fantastic name of its own).
I’ve googled boy names and girl names, exotic names, and androgynous names. I’ve done it in reverse too, and searched for names by their meaning. I’ve gotten lucky a few times and found just the right name for a character. You can also find online tools that generate character names, which is awesome if you can use a name like Magaga Dawntracker.
But looking for a name on the web is like looking for a song in your iPod when you can’t remember the title or artist. It takes forever. And you find yourself endlessly perusing, clicking, and nodding your head (or shaking it, as the case may be). I guess the benefit is that all those names you peruse might spark ideas for other characters, but what about the character you’ve already created? The one whose lack of a name launched you into this quest in the first place?
It’s not like this was a one-time ordeal. Name searching became a major time-suck for me. And fiction writing started to feel more like climbing Mount Everest than a creative experience. I went through this ridiculous cycle more times than I care to recall.
And then one day, I was happily browsing through my favorite bookstore, a local and independent bookstore, and this book popped out at me:
A World of Baby Character Names
Okay, so technically, the title of this book is A World of Baby Names. But I’m not naming any babies. This is strictly about naming characters.
Even though this was the first name book that I noticed, I checked out several others before buying this one. It had some features I thought might be useful. Turns out I was right. I’ve used this book a lot. A whole lot.
What I like best about it is that the names are separated by country of origin. And there are tons of names in this book that my American self has never heard before. I can look at the Hindu names and the Polish names, and then I can get creative and start combining them.
The names are also sorted by gender. That makes looking for an androgynous name a little challenging, but on the other hand, there’s a nice index, so I can scroll through every single name in a few minutes — a great method for finding a name that pops out at me. I can then navigate to the name page and find out what it means.
Each section also includes a written introduction about names in various cultures, which is pretty cool.
If you struggle with naming characters the way I do, then you should seriously consider getting this book or one like it.
A Few, Final Tips and Resources for Naming Characters
Readers have made tons of excellent suggestions since this article was first published. Here are their additions to the ever-growing list of resources for naming characters:
- Visit Behind the Name to peruse names and their meanings. You can browse by gender and/or nationality.
- Keep a special notebook (or a page/section in your notebook just for names. Make sure you jot down interesting names whenever you come across them and when you need a name, you’ll have your own stockpile!
- Do you have a smart phone or tablet? Search for “baby naming” or “character naming” apps. Tip: check the ratings and read the reviews to make sure you pick the best apps available.
- Want to choose names based on data and statistics? The U.S. Social Security Administration shows most popular names by year, decade, state, and territory!
A Rose By Any Other Name
How do you come up with character names? Do you have a name book? Is there a website you use? Do you have a knack for choosing names using nothing more than your own brilliant imagination? What are some of your all-time favorite character names? And finally (here’s a question for the most creative souls out there), can you think of any other good uses for a baby name book, other than naming babies and fictional characters?