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Have you ever read one of those epic fantasy novels in which the magical characters can gain total control over any living being simply by discovering their 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. 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 struggle with finding names for my characters. I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent searching for the perfect monikers for my poor, nameless characters. 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 composing prose, I usually 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 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 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). You encounter a bunch of awesome names for potential characters, but you might not find the perfect name for the character that needs a name immediately. I guess the benefit is that all those names you encounter 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 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 book of names 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, which is excellent for writing a story with a diverse cast of characters.
There’s a comprehensive index, so I can scroll through every single name in a few minutes — an excellent 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 of Writing Forward have made tons of excellent suggestions for character-naming resources:
- 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 bank from which to withdraw!
- 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. Ideal for characters in historical fiction!
A Rose By Any Other Name
How do you come up with character names? Do you have book of names? 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?
I think I’ve come across some books too where it was about the real and true name. It’s interesting how in real life, some folks seem to look like their name.
Very nice walk through of your approach and sources to draw from.
Yes, a lot of science fiction and fantasy that I’ve read uses real/true names with magical powers. It’s a common trope, I guess. And I agree that people often look like their name, which is an odd phenomenon.
For me, I think that it’s half and half. Usually, I just randomly pick out a name that I’ve been thinking about…sometimes when I surf for baby names (usually for a random character that I only need for a chapter or two) I’ll see other ones that sort of pop out, and then I can write them down and save them for later.
Then, when I meet a new character and need a name for him or her, I can usually sift through the names I’ve written down or remember and just stick it on. In the long run, the name will grow to fit the character and the character the name.
In some cases, though, I’ll just find a great name and I”ll make a character out of it. Sometimes the character will have been flitting around on the edge of my mind, looking for a good place to grow, and then when I get a name, it just grows out of it.
It’s funny how characters and their names grow from all sorts of inspirations. I too have started with a name and evolved a character from the way the name sounds or feels. I still find naming a challenging process. Maybe I’m just too picky.
I keep a notebook where I write down any names that I come across that I like (along with quotes, interesting facts, and so on). Getting the name right is so important to creating a believable character. I’m going to check out the name generator you point out in this article. 🙂
You should see how many lists of names I have in my notebooks and journals. It’s a little ridiculous, actually. I do think the name is essential to the character’s believability.
There’s even an iPod/iPhone app that will give random names. You can specify boy or girl, the letter you want it to start with, the ethnicity, even … then shake and up comes a name! Gotta love technology.
I’d like to check that out! Do you have the name of that app?
Character names are such a sticking point with me as a reader regardless of the genre of the book. Names for characters cannot be random nor unrelated to the character’s attributes.
Even the best writers though pull bone-headed names out the hat sometimes. I had received many recommendations to read Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety.” Stegner is a storyteller of no small reputation; however, his character names in this book totally floored me. I could not get images of “The Flintstones” out of my head because of the character’s names; and I have not been able to recommend the book since.
Since I have not published any fiction I don’t know how I would fare as a character namer in the market. But I do call on my experience of selecting four baby names where I hoped to inspire character traits to emulate as adults. I think it helps to match cultural expectations of a name owner with their role in a literary piece.
In college, I took a class on children’s literature in which we read Tuck Everlasting. For my essay, I did an analysis of all the names and found some pretty fascinating insights in my research. I think that essay is what caused me to become so hung up on the symbolism and meaning of character names. Oddly, I just thought of that essay — I probably should have mentioned it in the post. Then again, the post is long enough as it is! In any case, even though names are a huge source of frustration for me, I do manage to have a lot of fun with them.
I use a couple of online sites to help me pick names. One is from the Social Security Administration — http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/index.html. What’s cool about this site is that you can search on a particular year and find the top ten male and female names for that year.
The other site–Behind the Name–provides names with their etymologies. The list can be limited by nationality. http://www.behindthename.com/
Thanks for sharing these resources, Jim. I love etymology, so I’ll definitely bookmark that site.
I am really bad with names. Throughout college, I tried very hard to avoid naming characters. One sketch has characters named Albert, Bill, Carl, and Daniel, obviously enumerated alphabetically. Another scene has four characters called The Boss, The Accountant, The Chef, and The Secretary. I also avoided having characters refer to one another by name. But I guess, in general that’s not something you can get away with.
So when I really need to name characters, sometimes I just use Twitter or my blog to ask people to suggest names for the characters I am writing and then pick the ones that I think fit best.
I have a friend whose name is Apollo Blackwood. We told him that he has the most epic name, ever. Later I realized that he has a sister named Athena. So… really… epic…
I like how in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they intentionally named the wizard/enchanter “Tim” because “Tim was intended as a particularly unlikely and un-menacing name for such a powerful wizard.”
I think you’re good at names, actually. Since you write humor, you can get away with a lot of names that other fiction writers wouldn’t be able to pull off, which is why I’m guessing that The Boss, The Accountant, The Chef, and The Secretary worked just fine. As for Apollo Blackwood, that is, without a doubt, a totally epic name. In fact, it sounds more like a character than a real person. Cool!
This is exactly the approach I use when looking for character names. You can narrow your name search by nationality too. Also, if I know the area of the country my character comes from, I google “Arkansas surnames” for instance, and find a lot of useful sites. Surprisingly, I often find surnames that work well for first names. Thanks for a great post! Very helpful. 🙂
I often narrow by nationality, but that’s not easy when I’m writing fantasy or science fiction that isn’t set on Earth (as we know it) and therefore all the nationalities are null. I do like taking existing names and tweaking them. In fact, that’s been a good technique for me. And yes, I love surnames for first names. Also: androgynous names. Thanks, Birgitte!
Using a baby book is an awesome idea! I’ve been known to take two random names (first and last) from different stories in the paper (I call this the “Mrs Doubtfire” method). Or sometimes, if I’m writing fantasy, I’ll either take an existing name and just change the spelling slightly (names look totally different when an i becomes a y), or sometimes I’ll just run a word backwards.
I’ve run words backwards and turned them into names too. I’ve also used anagram generators online, and those can be a lot of fun. There are actually tons of naming resources. Maybe I’ll update this article later with a more thorough list. Thanks, Icy!
I’m with Deb, the names are sooooo important! I still remember F’lar from the Dragonriders of Pern that I read in Intermediate school! (I still want to be a dragonrider!)
But, I can’t tell you the name of the villain in my own story that I’m still trying to write. I can tell you the name of the main character. She was named by what and who I wanted her to be. I can’t forget her. I love her. Her name is stuck to her like literary glue!
I despise my villain and aim to kill her so, apparently, I’ve failed to find her a worthy name because she doesn’t deserve it. Tsk, tsk, tsk! 🙂
Yes, I know, I’m going to have to find her a better one.
Evelyn, you just said the magic word: Pern. The Dragonriders of Pern is one of my favorite fantasy/sci-fi series. I’ve read the entire collection twice! I too find villains more difficult to name than heroes. One of my favorite villain names is Snape (from Harry Potter). I like to use made-up names for villains so that I don’t create a negative association to a regular or common name. That’s just me being finicky.
I am abnormal. Not that names are unimportant, but that the right name need not be a mystery to solve.
Villainy is better hid in a creature called Ross, than something darker, something visible a mile away. James Bond carries strength from single syllables (close enough), an old husbands tale, and the work that made that simple name something larger.
A character, complete, complex and consistent will give life to the name given. Pebbles may not work so well, but common sense would not use that, when Sue is a much better boys name.
Jason is both hero and monster. As an aside, my ex-wife’s family name was Voorhees (yes, for real, with a brother associated with…well that’s mine to use, sorry).
Michael Myers, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Manson; tragic and immortal, immortal and tragic, tragic and tragic – got give up some tears for M and M’s.
You may consider repetitive syllables (Mor Dor, Fro Do – and on and on), an abundance of vowels, which is seriously abused, or bend first and last to one (JakeSully). At some point, an author was the first to use it. Thousands will tear themselves apart to recreate it. Take a deep breath….
I hope I didn’t offend anyone…I can’t help but be a boat rocker.
Yes, I agree that sometimes a villain is better off with a simple, regular name. The same is true for heroes. It really depends on the story. Since I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, the names are often exotic (not names you normally come across) and I always like it when those names somehow reflect the character’s personality or say something about the character, even if it’s only symbolic. But I have read stories in which average, everyday names work perfectly. Thanks for adding this perspective. You definitely didn’t offend anyone but merely opened up the discussion to more ideas. Thanks, Caliban.
I’ll often sit through movie credits, jotting down any unusual or interesting names. If I don’t happen to be thinking about this at the movies, IMDB can do the trick.
Ah! I never thought of that, but it’s a great idea. Thanks for sharing it, Paulo!
I love remixing names. I also really like behindthename.com
For the most part, I usually can come up with a name for my characters off the top of my head, mostly because I spend so much time combing the internet for them (Something I enjoy doing, oddly enough). However, for those names I get stuck on, I narrow down my search by the characters personality, or heritage, or something in their lives that kind of defines them. I pick up names from everywhere I can because of my fascination with them and for my characters, but I like to use thinkbabynames.com a lot. I can search by keyword in the meaning or history of the name, or by origin, gender or even variations. And I always keep my eyes open for interesting names in what I read and hear.
You’ve developed a great method for coming up with names. I do all that stuff too but still don’t have much luck. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just too picky!
Some authors use real or composite names as a tribute to other people.
It is nice to recognise the talents of other authors who have contributed to the area you are writing about.
Although if one was to be cynical, one could say that it was born out of insecurity and a need to display research that was carried out by the author!
The band Marilyn Manson comes to mind — all the band members took their first names from Hollywood starlets and their last names from criminals (murderers, I believe). In some ways, I think this approach in writing (and naming characters) lacks originality. On the other hand, it does function as a useful and meaningful symbol and reference.
I have used all the above plus spam mail and looking down at the keyboard and starting the name with the letter my index finger was touching.
But all in all, I do think that naming characters require great care for they will be known by the name and could be life or death of your book.
I like your innovation! I never would have thought to look for names among the spam. Maybe it’s good for something after all.
Our participants use the obituaries a LOT. Especially here in the south, where strange yet descriptive names abound.
That’s an interesting place to look for names. Someone on Facebook also suggested using a phone book, which I think is a great idea. It is, after all, a directory of names!
Up to this point I have just been reaching out and grabbing a name I like that sounds right for the character. This article really got me thinking about using the meaning of a name as an underlying factor in a story or novel. Perfect and something I haven’t thought about until now. Thanks for this article and the enlightenment it brought to me.
You’re welcome, Debra. Good luck with all your naming!
Reading through the list of resources that other readers have listed, I notice that there are very little. But there is one that stands out for me & that’s using a stockpile of names that I come across. I keep a page in my “Writing Folder” for every fascinating name I find. The list gets bigger everyday. It’s a great source.
Also google; I like to have characters with names from different countries, so google is a nifty tool too.
Yes, that technique is mentioned near the end of the post. I have a few pages in my notebooks dedicated to names too.
Scrivener has a great character naming generator. I also use family names and mix up forenames and surnames. Sometimes a name pops into my head but without the surname and then I’ll use the phonebook or news websites – they usually have plenty of names on them, either reporters names or people in the news.
I think we can all look for dynamic names to fit our characters but a person’s name is something that is given to them before their character forms. Names can become iconic purely because of a person’s notoriety and then the name seems to take on the aspects of that character; think Myra Hindley, Pol Pot, Ruth Ellis (last person to be executed in Britain), to name but a few. In isolation they would sound innocent enough; it’s what we now know about those people that makes their names chilling or infamous.
I wasn’t aware of Scrivener’s name generator. I’ll have to check that out! I’ve been combining names lately and have found it to be a good way of coming up with unique and interesting names. Using the phone book is a great idea. I’ve never heard of Ruth Ellis, but I find her name a rather creepy coincidence.
This sounds crazy, but the interstate can provide some amazing names on their exit signs! Next time you’re on the road and pass an exit sign with two town names, put them together as a character name. It works–some are gothic, some very trendy, some very funny. Keep a notebook in the car and collect them–you never know when one of those exit signs will be the perfect name for your MC!
Ooh, that’s a wonderful idea. A workaround to driving would be to consult a map. Thanks for the tip, Melanie.
Hello Melissa Donovan,
I am writing a storybook on a true incident about 7 years ago, should I use the original name in the story. If yes then I need to get permission to use their name in my storybook or without any permission it is fine to use their name?
First you need to figure out if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. Fiction is made up. Nonfiction refers to true versions of real events. A “story” book is usually fictional. Memoirs are nonfictional.
If you determine that you’re writing nonfiction, you don’t need permission to use people’s names. You do have the option of using pseudonyms, but that might not actually hide anyone’s identity. People can probably figure out who’s who from the context.
However, (and I will pause here to issue a disclaimer because I’m not a lawyer and this not legal advice) you could be liable if you slander or misrepresent someone. When it comes to this kind of thing, I say walk with caution. Check with a lawyer if you’re concerned.
I am currently writing a fictional story that takes place 3000ish years ago.
Most of my characters have Sanskrit names. I used words in sanskrit that match the personality or skills of the characters as their name.
Keep Writing everyone.
That sounds like a fun project! Thanks for telling us about it.