Coming up with names for characters is one of those weird little difficulties that really stumps me some days. Sometimes, a name just pops into my head without any trouble at all (Beda Kirn, one of the characters in my upcoming NaNoWriMo fantasy novel, for example) but if a name doesn’t occur to me right off the bat, it’s often a struggle, and frequently the process involves a lot of search-and-replace work later, when I realize I don’t like the name or it doesn’t suit the character.
The big things to avoid with character names are: names that are too long or too difficult, multiple characters with names that start with the same letter, characters with very similar names or types of names (don’t name one person Brad and another person Brant, but it can also be confusing to have a Joe and a Bob simply because they’re both very common, down-home, one-syllable names.)
Personally, I also agonize over things like how the first and last name sound together, and if the character goes by a nickname rather than a full name, how both the nickname and the full name sound with the last name. Sometimes it sounds weird when you have a one-syllable first name with a one-syllable surname, other times it comes out fine. Maybe I think about this too much, but I can’t seem to help it.
As far as coming up with names goes, the best tool I have ever been given as a writer is a baby name book. Baby name books are available at any bookstore and most grocery store checkout lanes. Information varies from one to another, but generally, they’ll give you the name, origin (Anglo-Saxon, Native American, Hebrew, etc.), meaning, and nicknames and derivatives. Some books have indexes with recommendations for how to come up with first and middle names that sound good together. Some have lots of foreign names, others are very all-American and focus on the trendiest names of the moment. Foreign names or derivatives are excellent fodder for the historical novel or fantasy writer. The hip stuff is great for modern literature, thrillers or mysteries, romances, or young adult writers.
Last names, for me, are always the hardest. Sometimes I’ll use the phone book to find random last names to choose from, but sometimes I feel like a weird stalker doing that. Sometimes I use authors’, artists’, musicians’, or actors’ last names, but never if they have a distinctive surname. Erica Flynn, of my current novel, got her last name from Errol Flynn, which seemed appropriate when the book got around to the bit with swords in. This week, a friend of mine suggested gravestones as a place to find names – which works for both first and last names.
I do, also, really pay attention to the connotations of my characters’ names. I’m not going to name a badass female character Daisy Mifkins or Amy Darling, unless I’m intentionally aiming for irony. I’m probably not going to name a suave, urbane male character Hank Smith, either, or a tough guy Alfred Eddleton.
There’s a writing exercise where you’re supposed to write the same scene twice, but in one version you primarily use words with hard letter sounds like k, t, z, and v, and in the other primarily use words with soft letters such as l, j, r, and h. I’ve done the exercise, and it really does make a big difference in how the scene reads. The same holds true with names. Primarily hard letters conjure up the expectation of toughness, primarily soft letters and names that end in ie or y sound meeker or even diminutive.
Search-and-replace really comes in handy. I feel funny using full names that I come across here or there in life that may not be the names of famous people but that are quirky and uncommon. For example i was coding surveys in Chicago and came across the name Maple Woodfork. I really wanted to use it because I was writing about some kinda rural people but I felt funny about it, and instead named a character Chelsie Maplefork. Sometimes, though, it seems more appropriate to give rather ordinary names to characters even if the characters aren’t ordinary. I say that because I have a protagonist called Angela Miller. There are ways this character is run of the mill–most superficial ways–no pink hair leather and chains–but it is my hope that she develops in extraordinary ways.
But I’m going to give both my current manuscripts a “name overhaul” after reading your post. Thanks!
I feel awkward about using full names that I find in phone books and such, too – it seems like an invasion of privacy or something. I hear ya!
Chelsie Maplefork – what an awesome name! I’m jealous!!
I am so glad to hear about someone who struggles with the same thing I do! I’m a writer also, and sometimes names are the hardest parts of the entire novel. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about naming like a “bad guy” Alfred or something… it just doesn’t fit. It’s taken me months to come up with some of my characters names and then the search-and-find is quite handy! Baby name books are very, very handy, or if you just want a quick list of names that are commonly used in countries or something, I’ve found that Google works very well too. Thanks for writing your post; I really enjoyed it!
Google is a great suggestion – I’m going to try that next time I need unusual or foreign-sounding last names!
Tell the people what you’ve done to your Baby Name Book, Sara. [grin]
Obituaries are great places to find names (yeah, writers are ghouls). You don’t have to use any one name, just collect good ones, and count backwards to see what year the name was given. Of course, you can use an “old” name for a younger character, if the character was named for an older relative.
Oh, yes, oh yes. I don’t want babies, myself, EVER, so my baby name book is taped over with electrical tape and construction paper, with a superhero penguin on the cover who “protects me from evil voodoo”. It has been relabeled a “Character Name Book” with permanent black marker. LOL!
Obits – good idea!!! See, we ARE ghouls!
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I also obsess about picking the right name. I recently changed the name of my lead in the fantasy trilogy I’m starting for NaNoWriMo. Her original name was an “ie” and just too soft.
I love getting names from Stacy’s historical reading he does for his PHD, especially surnames. I have also recently gotten some great names from customers special order shipments at the bookstore!
I love that you post so frequently now. Very inspiring.
Ahahaha – those special orders gotta be good for something! 😉 I’m doing my best to post semi-regularly these days. It’s hard sometimes, but I’d like some consistency.
What? You have a problem with Khenemetamun-pa-sheri? Noooooooo!
Seriously, the time frame a in which a story takes place puts an entirely different spin on choosing names for a character. It’s easier with ancient Egypt and Rome than with other cultures, there are lots of common names that have come down through history to us through inscriptions and documents. At other times, I’ll find a dictionary of the ancient language (teh inturwebz is a grate resource!) and choose a word to use for a name that says something about the character.
For modern day things, I’ve used the flip open the phone book and stab a name as well as pulling names off of spam email (Hey, they have to be of SOME use, right?).
Haha! You’re writing historical fiction, so you get a pass. Besides, you use manageable nicknames to make the characters more accessible and easier to keep clear in the readers’ minds. Clever!