One of my favorite things to do as a writer is to create character names. It’s one of the first things I do to start a new story. Names can say a lot about a person and finding just the right title for your characters can really help the story flourish.
Firstly, there are a few types of names in the story world, and I’ve come up with five different categories, just for fun. We have: bland names, overused names, hard-to-pronounce names, principal-character names, and side-character names. Now, let’s talk about them in a little more detail.
These are the names that don’t really stand out, the names that we have to go back through the book searching for because we forgot who “that guy” was. Go through your memory and try to think of some dull character names from stories you’ve read. The characters you’ve forgotten about entirely, just because you forgot their name.
Yet another thing to consider, for characters that don’t really matter to the story, people who don’t need to be remembered at the end of a book, bland names are perfect! If you’re looking for a name to fit someone who is insignificant to the storyline, bland is just fine.
Okay, we’re talking the kind of names you can find in basically every young adult paperback sitting in used bookstores from here to Timbuktu (perhaps an mild exaggeration, as I often exaggerate things with ease). Think “generic.” Of, course, different genres are going to have different overused names. For instance, open a historically set book and you’ll probably find a John, a James, a Henry, a William, a Mary, etc., because those names were very popular in history. Something from the 1990s might have a Jessica, a Brittney, an Ashley, a Chad, and a Michael. So, yes it will be historically correct to use these names, but not necessarily unique, since they can be found in many other books. If you’re looking for highly accurate names for the time, go with those even if they’re overused. If you feel you could be a little more lenient, gather uncommon and unique names, ones that are still accurate yet rare.
I think overused names can be found more frequently in surnames, like Smith, Jones, Brown, Johnson, etc. Yet, there’s nothing wrong with using any of these names, first or last. Indiana Jones is a world-wide known name, because the ordinary surname is overridden by a very unique first name. Another example, Luke Skywalker: very common first name, very uncommon last name. So you have the freedom to choose whatever arrangement sounds best for your character. There are no “rules” here, play around with the names, generic or unique! You can also take a popular last name and use it as a first name, and visa versa.
(Side-note: Jane Austen often used the same name for many of her characters, like Jane, Fitzwilliam, Anne, Fanny, Mary, Robert, and John, and it obviously didn’t hurt her writing career because of it, so do whatever you may!)
Most certainly more than once, I’ve read a name over and over again throughout a book without knowing how to correctly pronounce it, mumbling it in my head, and hoping I never have to read it aloud. It could be a name from a different language, or completely made up, like “Poigly” or “Maigdor” (how did you pronounce those; I’d like to know?) We can go through an entire book and simply skim over actually understanding that one name, because we’re unsure of how it’s supposed to sound. Perhaps using one or two hard to pronounce names is perfectly harmless, but an entire book of it could easily hurt the flow of the story if the reader is fumbling through every other sentence. Imagine reading Genesis chapter 10 in a consistent flow. Yeah, impossible.
Secondly, a name can just be too long. It can get tiring for the reader to sound out 2 four-syllable names every time the character is mentioned. So maybe give them a nickname!
This is your main character’s name, the one that you want everyone to be able to remember, with a unique ring to it, and some sort of tie to their personality. A nice blend of easy to remember/catchy, yet unique. You can pick a name that reflects the traits of the character. Wise people would have intelligent sounding names, untrustworthy people, a suspiciousness about their names. If you have several main characters, make sure they don’t sound strange when put together (since they’re probably going to be mentioned together often), like Will, Bill, and Jill (unless it’s important to the storyline).
These are the names that lay somewhere in between the bland names and the principle character names. The ones that don’t really have to stand out, but have to sound realistic for their character, time period, and location. Any name that doesn’t make the principal-character cut, move it to the side-character list. A great sidekick needs a great name!
Where to find unique names?
- A physical phone book – if you can find one. It’s always fun to do the random flip and point trick to create names. It never fails to give me unique and creative titles.
- Cemeteries – This is my secret place for gathering names, shh don’t tell anybody. I’ve filled page after page with rare and interesting names that sounded fascinating to me, from several different cemeteries. If you’re looking for historic names, look at the older headstones. (And no, I don’t consider this morbid in any way, these people would have most likely been thrilled to find out that a writer from the future had included their name in a story.)
- Your family tree – Look back into your own history and write down some of your favorite names, and of people who have been an inspiration to you from your family. It’s a good excuse to research your ancestry in detail, and you can even use some of the information and tales you find to include in the story.
- Old censuses – this might be your last resort. If you can find an old census in the library or online, you can pinpoint the date and general location when and where a certain name was in fashion. But reading through document after document, you may find it easier to try the other methods first.
So whenever you’re in need of names, grab your trusty notebook and make two categories, first names and last names. Gather anything and everything that catches your attention. Mix and match to created hundreds of different names. You’ll know a good name when you see one. Sometimes a name alone can spark the idea for a whole new story!
You can also use your list of newly gathered names for streets, towns, and establishments. There’s no limit to what you can use your research for, and the good thing about doing all your own research is that no other writer is going to have the same list of names. It will be completely distinct.
All this to say: you don’t have to use the internet name-generators that everyone else uses. You can be unique and special by finding them yourself, in the world, in your hometown, and in your ancestry. So have a ball gathering wonderful names and watch your characters come to life!
What’s your go-to way of naming characters?
Do names just come to your head, or do you go out and search for them?
Have you ever created a great name, only to then discover it’s already a famous literary character’s name and you can’t use it anymore, or is it just me?