This article was originally posted here.
Naming your characters is a very important step in any story. The name you give a character can influence the way a reader pictures them, the type of character the reader thinks they’ll be and, of course, if that character is remembered long after the story is finished. Harry Potter, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Artemis Fowl — these are all great names for different reasons.
The problem is, naming your characters can be deceptively difficult. We’ve all sat there, trying to think of a cool name for an slick-tongued space-rogue or an inexplicably adventurous archeologist, only to come up with such gems as “Jack Smith” or “Jane Nondescript”. I haven’t got the data to back it up, but I’m almost certain the human brain only has the capacity for 5 names of people that aren’t currently breathing your air.
In the interest of saving your sanity, I’ve put together four techniques for generating character names for you to use:
1. Try ‘Name-Farming’
Any time you hear or read a name that jumps out at you or evokes some kind of feeling, write it down. It helps if you carry a notepad, as all writers should anyway. Be especially aware when reading newspapers or online articles, when credits come on at the end of a film or tv show and even things as simple as radio shows with listeners phoning in. Then, jot it down and when it comes to naming a character later on you already have a list of great names to use.
For instance, I just took a look at the BBC News website and spent five minutes looking around, clicking on random articles and scanning them for names. The best I found was “Fergus Walsh”, an excellent name if I ever decide to write a novel about a stoic farmer who loses his beloved tractor and uses that loss to finally access his emotional core and reconnect with his estranged wife.
The great thing about this technique is that you can do it all the time without making much effort. You don’t need to go looking for the names, just jot down the good ones for later use as you encounter them doing what you’d normally do. It’s also an inexhaustible resource of at least semi-decent names, as there are always more articles to read with names in them and, presumably, most people have had at least a little thought put into their names by their parents.
You do have to get into a habit of writing down the names, which is a stumbling block for some, and there is also the distinct possibility that you write down the name of someone who, unbeknownst to you, is actually very, very famous. You don’t want to name your arch-villain “Barack Obama” and not realise your mistake until later.
2. Take Names From Your Childhood
Everybody remembers that kid at your school who just had the coolest name. Don’t be shy about appropriating it. It’s not just your friends either, it could be anyone whose name you can remember from your school days, including students, teachers, even lunchladies or your friend’s mum.
Taking two memorable names from my school days I came up with “Philippa Hillyard”, a bouncy young lass in a sundress who’s only too happy to show you the way to the village fair.
The great thing about this is if you can remember someone’s name from when you were much younger, then you already know that it’s a memorable name! This is especially true if the person whose name you remember was someone you barely knew or had only heard of in passing, as that means all you’re remembering is the name.
However, be careful about using people’s names without permission. It’s fine to use a given name or a surname without asking, as long as the character isn’t very similar to the real person. It is entirely inadvisable to use a full name of someone you went to school with, as you could open yourself up to legal action.
3. Visit Baby Name Websites
What better way to generate names than to go to a website specifically designed to deliver you names? Do a quick search for baby name websites and try a few out, but my favourite is Nameberry.com because of the advanced search feature. You can specify age, gender, number of syllables, what the name ends in and I’m sure other features I’ve never bothered using. You could also use a good old-fashioned baby name book, but print media is severly lacking in search functionality these days.
A quick search for ‘gift’ in name meanings gave me “Dottie”, who I imagine to be a giving, kind Christian lady who is very humble and very devout. ‘Joy’ gave me “Allegra”, who I imagine is the woman sleeping with Dottie’s husband while she’s at Sunday service.
This method allows you to add subtext to your character names if you like that sort of thing, but the most useful thing for me is using advanced search tools to get exactly the kind of names I’m looking for.
However, this technique only really works for given names. Also, unless your search skills are up to scratch you can end up wading through a lot of terrible names before finding the gem in the rough.
4. Make Your Own
But who needs all this searching? Any word can be a name if you that’s what you call someone! Obviously most words don’t sound much like names, but there are methods of making words that do. You could simply combine fragments of two different names to come up with a new one. Surnames are even easier, you can add “-son”, “-man” or “-berg” to pretty much any noun to make a surname that sounds plausible, or add “-er” to pretty much any verb. Job names, especially traditional ones, often make excellent surnames.
I came up with one full name by combing fragments of other names (“Fergen Wailey”), a surname (“Mirrorberg”) by adding “-berg” to a random item I could see, and another surname (“Wiggler”) by adding “-er” to the only thing I could be immediately bothered to do.
This technique can really bring you some truly unique names, which is especially great for scifi and fantasy writers. I mean, no-one wants to name a bloodthirsty Orc “Roy”, do they?
On the other hand, this is the most difficult technique as it requires you to engage more heavily with your creativity. You also run the risk of producing names that only you have any idea how to pronounce, which is very jarring for a reader. Also, you run the risk of coming up with names like “Fergen Wailey”. Maybe he’s a gnomish bard.
So there we have it, four techniques for generating character names. Did you employ one of these techniques and come up with a genius character name? If so, post it in a comment below.
And even if you’re stuck using “Fergen Wailey” for your first draft, keep writing.
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