Internet to the Rescue!

By John Gilstrap

I’ve read articles by and about other writers who maintain that their first step in drawing a character is to find the perfect name.  I’ve never understood that, beyond the obvious connotations of character type.  A romantic hero named Raunchy McStinkface would probably be doomed.  My series character, Jonathan Grave, is called that because my original plan for the series was to build titles around the name–Grave Danger, Grave Peril, etc.  Okay, I’m not very good with titles.  (Hand to God: I was two or three books into the series before I realized, thanks to an inquiry from a fan, that Jonathan and I share the same initials.)

For me, characters develop in my head from the inside out–how they think and feel and react.  Names, for the most part, are just labels, something to call them.  I’ve taken names from friends, and also from news stories, sometimes attaching one news maker’s first name to someone else’s last name.

In my current WIP, Crimson Phoenix, my first non-Grave book in quite a while, I’m cursed with a ton of walk-on characters.  I’ve been going crazy trying to develop names for these folks, until earlier this week, when I wondered if the internet has such a thing as a name generator.  Eureka!  This site is a name generator.  It allows you to choose ethnicity, sex, age, and a host of other factors to spit out a list of names.  Or, you can go straight to the Quick Name Generator, which will spit out a random list for you to choose from.

Fair warning: The site can become an obsession if you’re not careful.

So, this got me to thinking, what else is out there?  One of my evil writing reflexes is to have characters nod too much.  Non-verbal communication is important in a scene, but beyond shrugs, nods making faces, my quiver runs empty pretty quickly.  Here’s a site I found specifically to help with body language.

Want more?  How about this helpful blog with 106 ways to describe sound?

I forget sometimes what a boon the internet can be for writers.  I am continually amazed by how there seems always to be an answer to any question you want to ask.  Not all of the answers or suggestions are great, but there’s always a route to follow to get to the answer.

So, TKZers, give us a link to your favorite helpful sites, either on craft or just for reaearch.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

24 thoughts on “Internet to the Rescue!

  1. Names, be they for characters or books, are my nemesis. Often, I’ll put in a birth year and initial for first names so at least the character won’t have an ‘inappropriate for the time’ name. Or “Italian surnames G”. I use the initials to avoid things like Mick, Mack, Mike, and Mark–and I keep a spreadsheet. Hint. It works better if you actually fill it in when you name a character, no matter how small a role they play.
    Scrivener has a name generator, and that’s one of the only things I’ve been able to master with that program.
    What I found fascinating was the existence of sites that let you generate names for bands, for bars, for shops. Who knew?

  2. From the “old days” (before Al Gore invented the internet) I have a couple of baby name books, several programs from college graduations, two directories from organizations, and one or two other printed resources.

    Today, like Terry, I use Scrivener almost exclusively. But the site John links us to is pretty cool.

    I do have to remember to do a quick word search on my computer for any name I choose…more than once I’ve seen that I used that name in a book I wrote some years ago.

      • People talk about a book’s “Bible.” The challenge is to actually keep it up-to-date. I built a little MariaDB database of names of characters, but haven’t entered any in more than a year. A spreadsheet would be great for the “Bible.”

        Now that I’ve nearly completed my asymptotic approach to “all-that-I-can-do-with-my-WIP,” I’m going to spend some time updating my “Bible.”

        I may be “tone-deaf,” but I don’t worry too much about which names I use unless I want to indicate a particular ethnic/national origin for some reason. But my wife will remind me if certain names are anachronistic. There weren’t many “Muffys” in my high school class. That’s where on-line baby books for given years can help.

  3. Thanks for the links, Mr. Gilstrap! I’ve got them in my favorites list now for quick access.

    For my three published books, whose MCs are mostly of Hebrew and other Middle Eastern extraction, I used, then under Hebrew, or whatever ethnicity I needed.

    For my current projects, I like maps. I like to know exactly where the setting is on the map, which highways connect, exact distances, and for an added bonus, city and town websites. (I used maps with my first three books also, but had to find some maps of the ancient world.)

    I’m not much of a traveler (I know, I know-I should visit my settings). But now that I can’t, I pore over maps. Always liked them since I was a child. 🙂

    • Visiting settings is vastly overrated, in my opinion. The advent of Google Earth and “street view” has changed that paradigm for me. I was able to write the entire final sequence of FINAL TARGET using street view. I “drove” the entire escape route, and was able to find the site for the final shootout.

      • 30 years ago Dean Koontz wrote a book set in Tokyo. He’d never been. He devoured travel guides and books about the place. He got kudos from readers for knowing the intimate details of the city.

        Youtube is also a great resource to “visit” settings.

  4. Main character names are like my titles. Sometimes, I know it going in, and, sometimes, it comes to me. I always have that frission of awareness that, yes, this is it, and the character clicks in beyond being a selection of abilities and personality elements that will fit what I am writing. (I most often build the charater around the plot and theme.) Anyway, here’s some links I use to for names.

    *The period the story is set in. Names must be authentic for the period. A number of websites are available for different historical periods as well as recent years. Do your research, and don’t have a Medieval heroine named Tiffany.

    First names:
    Popular first names in recent years:

    *The location of the story and ethnic background of your characters.

    Popular first name by state:

  5. I’d written the first two books in each of my series and one novella before I realized all my protagonists’ names started with S. And so, I researched why this might occur. The experts say, we’re drawn to names that are similar to our own on a subconscious level. Hence why they advocate to skip the first name that pops into your mind. I can’t find the article, sorry, but you could probably Google it if you’re interested.

    Thank you for the body cue and sound links, John. Another fantastic resource is the Emotional Thesaurus, Book 1 & 2.

  6. My mother was into genealogy big-time, way back when the internet wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye. So I grew up with names from the British Isles and Europe (both first and last) on index cards lined up on the dining room table. My love of names came from reading those cards over and over.

    When I got a few years older, I also began researching names, but not for genealogical purposes. I’d just begun writing and names still fascinated me, actually more than my plots.

    Little by little, I started collecting names from all over the world. I stopped about ten years into the project. I estimate I have well over 20K names, divided by their countries — first and last, with all kinds of variations. The pages of names are in large binders. Each time I begin a new project, I hoist the binders from the shelf while marveling at how much free time I once had. I love those names. I can get lost in them for hours. Each name (first and last) is a potential character. And knowing their country of origin gives a little boost to their background. I have two ancestors whose names I would love to put it a story, both from Wales. Then I have one from Switzerland, and a couple from Scotland and Northern Ireland. I wonder what would happen if I put them all in the same book.

    See…I can’t help myself. And I blame it all on my mother.

      • I frequented the library, a lot. Some of my best sources were nonfiction indexes.

        And to clarify, I did not have an obsession. I had a hobby, that got out of control.

  7. Thanks for the link to the name generator site. It’s very cool!

    I put in the first and last name initials of the main character in my novel and listed her characteristics. The top suggestion on their list was very close to the name I had chosen. I can see how this could become habit-forming.

  8. I’ve found that enthusiast sites are incredibly helpful. I have a story set in 1974 and wanted my main character, a Sherlock Holmes wannabe, to be able to identify the make and model of most vehicles she encounters, along with the official name of every factory paint color. It’s not a particularly rare skill, but I don’t have it myself. Enthusiast sites lovingly catalog all of this, with pictures. Similarly, when I wanted to know what singles were in the Top 40 and what was playing on TV on a given day, people had gone to a lot of trouble to collect that information.

    And since one of my characters is a werewolf, I needed the phases of the moon for September, 1974. That was a little trickier.

    And where the Web lets me down, it still comes through, because I buy magazines and catalogs on from the target era to fill in the gaps—on eBay.

  9. Nice post. I use the local phone book when trying to name secondary characters. And my characters all nod way too much too! Editing now to diversify body language….before that I did a round of editing for adverbs. There are a lot of ‘ly’ words in a 90k word draft! I think I got rid of close to half….

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