One question I get asked a lot is “how do you come up with names for your characters?”. I always find this odd, to me this questions is on the same branch as “Where do you get your ideas.” In the end I am not living alone in a box, sealed off from the world – I am surrounded by such things.
Names are everywhere. People have them, animals have them, so do rivers, streets and even hurricanes. We are inundated with names so picking names for characters really isn’t that hard.
I guess it’s like being an new parent, trying to find the name that fits. Usually when they find the name, they know. Writers are the same (mostly).
I am not the only writer who has a Name List. This is a spreadsheet on my computer full of names that caught me when I heard or saw them. Whenever I find a new name that just rings perfect, I make a note of it.
Sometimes the name drags along an idea too. Those are great and you get to develop a character idea all at the same time.
Sometimes you have a character who’s nameless and then a name will appear and boom, the two are matched up instantly.
I don’t often search for names. The few times I’ve done that they haven’t felt right – it’s been a “nice pair of jeans, just can’t get my ass into them” moment.
So instead I do passive searching. I have my story and character bubbling away in my mind, near the front and I then let names come to me. While I’m driving I clock street names, I hear names on the TV or radio and in conversations, I read articles and make a note of who wrote it. I read the obituaries and have been known to wander through a graveyard looking at tombstones.
I guess in one way I can answer the “where do you get your names from” question. Around 50% of names I come across are pulled from movie credits. Yes I am one of those weird people who will sit through credits for the possible “extra scene” at the end. This gives me a time to cast my eye over the crew. This is a wealth of information – hairdressers, animal wranglers, boom operators, voice coach, the list goes on.
This is probably because I am big into movies so watch quite a few in a week. This gives me a nice buffet of names to pick from. Plus as a bonus if you watch any foreign films you will find common names from those countries too. I have found so many awesome names this way.
Make shit up
I am also the kind of person who can just jumble up words – I do this by accident when I speak, I can struggle to say the word I want and instead something else comes out. Welcome to my social nightmare!
However this jumbled mess of my mind has allowed me to piece words together and come up with names’ that are not names.
This is used more for planets or cities but I’ve made character names out of them too.
One thing I do like is finding names with meanings. Baby books are good for this so are books on mythology.
If you have a character that is brave or charming or weak or is worshiped, you will probably find a name that has those as a meaning. This can be something they are named by their parents – maybe as a hope that they will have those traits, or named when it is clear they have those traits or maybe they are named later or change their name (this especially works in fantasy writing). This can add new dimensions to your work by creating a cultural point re naming.
A few quick rules
First – don’t change the name because someone else hate it. IF the name doesn’t fit into the era you are writing – such as 1592 would not really be a place to find “Kylie or Brett” – in which case, change it because that’s dumb and will read clunky.
However someone will probably come up to you and say “I like your story but I hate the character is called Richard”. This is probably a personal issue for them – we all have people who pissed us off and their name can become synonymous for annoying, untrustworthy, hateful, liar, or any other negative traits which that specific reader feels when they hear the name.
Someone will hate the name but it’s the one you picked, the one you liked, and that is all that matters.
Second – Don’t use names that are instantly recognisable such as Gandalf – (that just won’t go down well unless you are writing a Lord of the Rings book – in which case, kudos for getting permission to do that! Don’t fuck it up!) Maybe Gandalf is the perfect name for your ass-kicking ninja pirate but in the end people are just going to see Wizard! So let it go and pick something else.
Third – Be careful if you use a name of someone you know. You don’t want to accidentally build the character to be like them especially as they might not find that flattering and could sue you. Obviously there are some very common names. If you want to use John, fine, chances are you know a John – just make sure the person and the character are not similar AT ALL.
Use a Temp Name
If you need to, work without a name. If you have a story or a scene that is bursting to get out, then get it out. Don’t let the lack of a name stop you. Remember this will all be draft work anyway! Instead use a Temp Name. I personally just put (NAME) throughout as it is usually just one name I am working to find. If you have more than one, then maybe use colours of the rainbow like BLUE and GREEN, or animals like BAT and FROG for different people. Whatever works for you that can be quickly changed later.
Personal note, I always write the Temp Name in capitals so I don’t miss any when I could to change them. It really stands out. Just my personal preference!
Once you come up with a name you can do a simple Find and Replace to clear your Temp Name with the real one. This method is good as it stops you from rushing ahead and naming them something that you don’t really care for just so you can start writing.
NEW BLOG POSTS
There will now be new blog posts on this blog every Friday. 🙂