Choosing Character Names

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m winging my way to Australia today so apologies that I won’t be able to join in the discussion. I will, however, be trying to do a little writing on the way (although you all know how hard I find it to write ‘in public’!). I started a new project last week and have been enjoying coming up with my new characters’ names – something I always have a lot of fun with and yet also suffer way too much angst over…

A character’s name can be critical to establishing the voice and feel of that person in the world that I am creating, and I often spend a considerable amount of time tinkering with main character names until they feel and fit the character exactly right.

Since I mainly write historical novels, I have a number of resources at my disposal to help me come up with names. These include lists of popular boys and girls names for  the time period I’m writing about as well as handy British last name resources like census data, historical records, newspapers, magazines and even Debrett’s (I often write about aristocrats, after all!). I’m like a sponge at first, soaking in all the details about names and then I play around with combinations until I find the right fit. Since I’ve also been writing with a renewed sense of appreciation for the humor in certain names, I have also been rereading Charles Dickens. He is, in my opinion, one of the cleverest ‘namers’ in literature (who can forget names like Uriah Heep, Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Pumblechook!). I recently discovered the often hilarious Dickens name generator and have spent many an hour or two concocting my own ‘Dickensian’ type names. 

So how do you come up with your character names? What resources do you use and how much time and effort do you spend? Is it something you agonize over, trying to make sure the name ‘fits’ the character or do you find the names just come to you and slide on your characters as easily as a silk glove? Apart from Dickens, who do you think has come up with some of the greatest, most memorable character names? 

20 thoughts on “Choosing Character Names

  1. As I have a somewhat dry sense of humor (some may disagree with my self-assessment) I fimd some names easy to drape around my characters necks~
    • the Texan whose kids are Dallas, Austin, Houston, and Katy
    • the alcoholic with twin daughters Sherri and Brandi;
    • the Southern boy named Thomas Jefferson Davis

    Speaking of “Southernness”- there’s the great tradition “down here” of using family last names as first or given names, and those give a certain sense of color to a character ala Dickens ~ and it’s kind of fun to see what combinations feel like. (And I do know a few here in the ATL with the first names of Jones, McCauley, Candler, etc., so it’s not just a Pat Conroy thing).

    I think Faulkner came up with some pretty decent names in his long and convoluted sentences ~ Snopes, Sartorus~

    Safe travels down under~!

  2. The telephone book used to be a good source, though it’s going the way of the telephone book. Open to one page of the white pages, put your finger down, and there is your character’s first name; repeat the process for the second name.

    Also, names of friends are good. As are names of enemies, with slight changes here and there. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Definitely – I’ll also check first name meanings, and select from that listing whenever trying to do the sly symbolism thing we all hated in high school and freshman English classes…

  3. Credits at the end of a movie are a huge source of names. If you’re looking for a foreign name, check the credit roll of a movie shot in a particular country. Even though it might be a Hollywood studio making the movie, most of the crew comes from the local professionals to save costs.

  4. Scrivener has a cool name generator tool. You check which kind of nationality you want, the “obscurity” level, male or female, three names, alliteration if you want it. It takes about 10 seconds to open it up, select the options and generate up to 500 possible names. You can choose one of those, or mix and match.

  5. Oh this is a good one…I am an agonizer. I also search the lists for names and make note of interesting surnames that I come across. For my first book, I used a lot of family names, but that is not going to work for my next book.

  6. I use Behind the Name, and have also found some names from literature. I was also blessed to have discovered some awesome Russian-language names sites, and a Belarusian-language names site. Since my taste tends towards classical eccentric and classical unusual, I prefer names which aren’t Top 100, trendy, common, or popular, though sometimes a more popular name just fits a character better than a lesser-used specimen. Fewer things date a book faster than gut-loading it with current Top 100 names. Even worse is when a writer predates a naming trend and expects us to believe a teen character’s mother is named Madison or that a college boy is named Kayden.

    • Behind the Name gave me Everett Chance Hunnisett~ Look at all those double t:s~ and his lovely fiance Dotty Olive Hall… Quite a pair…

    • Behind the Names is usually my starting point for creating names with a meaning appropriate to the character. There are some similar sites but keep going back to Behind the Names. For me names are sometimes symbolic of the traits, role, background, or destiny.

  7. Oh, what’s in a name? Here are a few of my favorites:

    Hiro Bonaki
    Jerund Harlip
    Sindee “Mistress” Sixe
    Ricci Rae Rawlins
    Contadora Botafoga Galleon
    Ezra Criollo
    Jaime Azulará (aka Jimi Blu)
    Trumpet Winsock
    Cho Ming Tao (aka Joe)

    Keep an eye out for some of these folks. Where they come from is another story.

  8. It’s so important for real people _and_ characters to have the right name … I was given the wrong first & middle name at birth, thought I’d get used to them & never did, so I finally got a legal name change. I was in my 40s by that time. Wish I’d done it sooner.

    But however I come up with names, I always run them through … did you know Clint Eastwood anagrams to “Old West Action”?

  9. A stroll through the cemetery works for me every time. A first name from this stone, a last name from that one. Or once in a rare while, I whole name from a century ago is just too perfect, so I take the whole thing and fiddle with the spelling just to be on the safe side.
    But seriously, the cemetery has never failed me.

  10. My daughter’s Harry Potter novels are full of unique sounding names.
    I have a copy of Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon with Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet that is useful and interesting.

  11. I have a question that sort of relates to character names but one I find even more challenging – how does one find the title of their book? I have made lists of different combinations and I am struggling to pick out the best one.

  12. Selecting names is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process IMO. Can I leave a request on this topic? I am a visual learner. It turns out I do much better remembering peoples’ and characters’ names if I see them written or otherwise in print a few times as opposed to, let’s say, hearing the name in conversation. In any case, when characters/people have similar names, more specifically, if they begin with the same letter, I really have trouble keeping them straight. Three male characters in a story named Dan, Derek, and Dennis are going to give me all kinds of fits and starts as I work my way through the tale. For the love of all that is holy, why all three D names when there are thousands of alternatives out there? So please think of me and others in my situation when you are naming characters. Variety is the spice of life.

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