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.