Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What's in a name?

If you play the writing game long enough, you learn that giving your protagonist a memorable name is important. It sounds innocent and easy enough, but this can get complicated.

You don't want a name that's too common and forgettable. Neither do you want a name that's too long, too unpronounceable, or just too twee.

Your supporting cast is important as well. You shouldn't have too many names beginning with the same letter, and definitely keep away from rhyming names unless you have cutesie-tootsie twins in your story.

Which begs the question: how do you dream up good names for your characters? We asked several of our editors how they do it.

Helen: My favorite resource book for naming characters is A World of Baby Names by Teresa Norman. Each of the 31 chapters starts off with an introduction to that country's use of names. For example, the intro to "African Names" includes information like, "A person's name is considered to be his most valuable possession, for it is the only thing that can survive death... Names such as the female Komuko (this one will not die) and the male Zimoko (thank you) reflect the sad fact of high infant mortality and the parents' fervent hope that their child will survive." With over 30,000 names, arranged by country, it's a great place to not only choose a name that would fit a character's ancestry, but also to find the meaning and pronunciation of each name.

Patricia: I tend to use street names from towns I'm not writing about. Very useful as many streets are named after people. When naming the bad guys, I try to use made-up names that yield no results when I do a Google search.

Maryann: I use the phone book for last names and books of saints names for first names. Get some unusual names that way. :-)

Linda: Like Helen said, I peruse lists of baby names. Also, sometimes a name pops into my mind while I'm developing a character sketch. The Cherokee/Irish attorney in my new book is Aidan Wolf. (His brother, mentioned only once in this one but a larger character in the next of the series, is Declan.) The first names happen to be a favorites, and the last name came from an Internet search of common Cherokee surnames.

And here's my favorite name generator, which yields a daily list of first and last name combinations:

What about you? What are your favorite name sources including online generators?

Dani Greer is currently judging 35 essays for an online writing contest, learning how to record a double-ender (don't ask) and killing as many grasshoppers in any given day as is humanly possible in 95-degree heat. Oh, and she's thinking about writing a graphic novel called Queen of Socks.

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  1. If I can't think of a name off the top of my head that just "fits" then I go on baby name sites and look until I find one that just clicks with the character. I skim the list until I go "That's the one!" Do the same thing with last names. :)

  2. Sometimes the character names himself or herself. It just comes and I can't explain it. The rest of the time, I struggle to find names. Look in the Baby Names book or just catch a name out of the air, intending to change it once the perfect name comes. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes not.

  3. I just commented about this on a friend's site this morning.

    I love naming characters! My favorite resources: to look up the meaning of names I know and to look up names by meaning. to look at the top 1000 most popular names in a given birth year, to find age-appropriate names. to find names by "style," including origins, popular time period and the more subjective "feel." (although I prefer the book nymbler & the next site were based on, the Baby Name Wizard). Baby Name Wizard's Name Voyager, visualizing popular names over time. (The blog also talks about naming trends.)

  4. I tend to go with themes that group the names. My first published novel took the main characters' names from one of my favourite Icelandic sagas, but only the bad characters, who I made into good folks. I did name the bad guy after the very annoying son of a faculty member (I was in grad school at the time).

    The novel I'm revising now, all the people have bird-related names. My pseudonymous novel has most of the names taken from British comedy (although the sequel which I've just begun is taking names from kinds of beer).

    I have been known to just take random names from the spines of books on my shelves...

  5. All fantastic tips and ideas. Kate, I never thought to look at my bookshelf for names - duh! Well, there are a few books in my library, and one could simply mix-n-match authors, or combine words in titles, couldn't one?

    This may generate a follow-up post, including all of Jordan's links.


  6. I like the baby name sites too. But most of my character names have come from reading the credits for movies and TV shows. Lots of really cool names out there working behind-the-scenes. :)

  7. I used my family genealogy chart for one of my novels, selecting names that sounded unique and distinct for each era. Lately, when I see interesting street names, I think about putting them together as character names. For instance, one character was recently named Boyd Dalton as a result of driving.

  8. I collect and keep graduation programs. Mixing and matching names helps me come up with names that fit my characters.

    Another way to get interesting names is to watch the credits after a movie.

    Once when I was ghost writing a thriller with Russian and Chinese character I went on line to find appropriate names. You can find anything on the Internet.

    Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

  9. I jot down interesting names of customers I talk to at my day job. I also like

  10. I use Character Name Sourcebook (published by writer's digest). It includes names from all over the world, separated by gender, and also listed with meaning. It's also divided into sections and there is a reverse look up ^^ Plus there's many stories on how famous authors choose their character names.

  11. Baby name sites and Google search are great.

    When I need a throwaway name fast (like for a walk-on or minor character), I like to use this random name generator based on US census data. It lets you enter an obscurity factor, which is nice if I'm doing a modern story (less obscure) or fantasy (very obscure).

  12. Half the time they just pop in my head.

    I go through a baby name book and make a list of names I feel fit with whatever project I'm working on. When I need a name I just go to that list.

    I like the sound of the one Helen talked about. I might have to pick myself up a copy. :D

  13. Since we're talking names, Dani, what's the name of your Queen of Socks?

    Names aren't easy. Once I pick one, I tend to stick to it. Although...I have changed a protagonist's name before. It wasn't easy to bring myself to do it, though.

  14. I actually got half the names for my characters from books. I went to the garage (I don't keep any books in my loft where I write) and looked at the names on the binders. Short and sweet. In and out. No muss, no fuss. Example: Staci came from one book and Bevere from another. Staci Bevere. Works for me.

    Steve Tremp

  15. Oh! I should also note that has "resources" (one article, that I've seen) for writers: The comments on the article are fun (and instructive).

    I'd be happy to do a whole guest post on this, if you'd like! Just let me know.

  16. Sometimes I steal the first names of real people if I like the name.

    Morgan Mandel

  17. Didn't Charles Dickens use names he found on old tombstones? And isn't there a mystery author who uses real people's names if they donate to a charity?

    I have an artist friend whose name I'll ask permission to use, not as an active character but as the painter of a valuable stolen painting. She may enjoy reading about a "genuine Fallstead."

    My names tend to just pop into my head. I often change them, though.

    Bob Sanchez

  18. I use a 1950 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of English Names which offers somer real gems.

  19. Or even SOME real gems, sigh!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.