We give names to most everything around us: our pets, our kids, our cars, the products we use, the food we eat (it’s not ‘frozen dairy-like substance’, but Frosty), the games we play. And, as writers, we name our characters, too. In fact, next to the physical characteristics we try to describe, the names of our heroes, villains, band leaders, and shopkeepers are about the most important tool we have for identifying and tracking who is doing what. Good names help both writers and readers move through a story smoothly; bad names put us in a stagecoach on a washed out dirt road.
In my current novel, I’m writing about faculty, staff, and students at a smallish university in the southeast. Since there is a big cast, characters need to be distinct without being odd (at least, not all of them can be odd), which means I need a lot of names.
Thankfully, some characters arrive already wearing a badge—like Cleveland Alabama, the school’s provost. Others, though, require more effort. When, for instance, I wanted to introduce the library director, I checked my names file. As luck would have it, the name “Antony Ellerman” was there, waiting.
How Do You Name Your Characters
Expecting parents can consult books if they need a moniker for their bundle of joy. But how do writers come up with a batch of suitable options? Here are my techniques:
1. Start with people you already know.
But be sure to do a bit of tweaking, too, so as to protect the innocent (a writing contest asked authors to use pseudonyms for the judging phase; the one I chose for my submission was, inadvertently, the name of a living German scholar. Whoops.).
2. Get some maps!
While driving through Nashville, I noticed street names that sounded like they should be characters in a novel I was working on. Maps—especially from cities in the South—have been a source ever since.
3. Pay attention to movie credits.
Hint: the pause button is your friend. Hint #2: see #1 above.
4. Look around you.
In Playa Perdida, one of my favorite characters is Charlotte Pipe. Her name came off a length of PVC tubing I saw in a lumber yard, shipped in from North Carolina.
5. Use index cards.
By keeping separate cards for first and last names, you can combine as needed.
6. Create a cast list.
As characters emerge, I put them on a ‘cast list’. In stories of any length, this can grow rather large, so I consult it often, and ask questions:
- Do too many names have the same ‘tone’ (like a first name with 2 syllables, last name with 1, and so on)?
- Too many with the same initials?
- Does a name seem realistic even if it’s entirely made up? (‘Lauren Mifflewhite’, a math prof at the college in my new novel, fits that.)
7. Listen to your names.
Names can’t be overly weird or impossible to pronounce (science fiction and fantasy, I’m looking at you). They have to be believable without being boring, and woe betide the name that comes across as heavy-handed (a problem even among those not writing allegories). When in doubt, ask a friend to read the name out loud. Pay attention to feedback.
8. Thank the Muse, and then Google your list.
Names that work are gifts, and I’m grateful for each one.
Then, once my cast list is fairly solid, I run a Google search to make sure I haven’t chosen the name of someone who lives on my block, or who has already written a novel about a smallish university in the southeast.
You have two options for your practice today:
1. To build your own cast list, start with a group of names, like from your email address book, a church directory, or the board of directors at your current school or alma mater. Take fifteen minutes to riff on that list, creating 20 new names from what’s on your page.
2. List the names of characters from a recent piece you’ve written, and then spend 15 minutes studying it: Is there repetition of tone (same number of syllables in more than 3 of the names)? Can someone other than you pronounce those names easily? Change at least two of the names to something else entirely. What happens to your story?
When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments, telling us which one you did.