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Naming Rights

June 28, 2010

I always struggle to name my characters if they don’t arrive with a name. It is like naming a child – you don’t name them just for the sound as it rolls off your tongue but what meaning you imbue their soul with. Sometimes I get lucky, when a character arrives without a name and standing at the sink, in the shower, hanging out washing, driving etc the name just comes to me and I go, “well of course!” but sometimes the search is more elusive.

Here are some tried and true tips for finding the right name for your character

  1. Name them after someone connected with the development of the story – if doing so is going to honour them.  (Don’t name a character to spite a real life adversary.)  I named the daughter in my story “Bondi”, Claire, after Australian author Claire Halliday, whose tweets on the absurdity surrounding her daughter wanting to busk Christmas carols, were the original inspiration for the story.
  2. Research old myths for strange or obscure names (look to the minor players) which you can use in whole or cut up into parts. Old Greek names are particularly good for those looking for reader friendly sci-fi or fantasy names. For instance I took the name Callisto, traced it back to earlier roots as Calliste and then carved it into Calli for my story “Clutch”. The protagonist in my WIP is named Theleia.
  3. Take the births and death pages from your local newspaper. There is always a great collection of new trend names and older names between the two pages. When I was a teenager one my writing folder was covered with the births pages from one of the Melbourne broadsheets – ready reference.
  4. Choose a high volume news site. I got to the Sydney Morning Herald website and pick the first name I come across. I usually look for the journos names but you could choose to look for names from those making the news. This is great for bit characters who just need a name
  5. Go to one of the online lists of the most popular birth names for the year – this is especially good if your looking to name your character with an authentic name for the time. Somewhere like here will give you the top five boys and girls names for each year for the last hundred years (they’re US names). The Baby Centre’s search engine will allow you to search for lists of top 100 names for any given year
  6. There’s a cracker book called “The New Age Baby Name Book” which has all manner of weird and wonderful names. Amazon has listings of used copies from 1c.
  7. Go biblical.  Try somewhere like great thing about lots of biblical names – they come with their own back stories. The best recent one to spring to mind is Chris Chartrand’s short story “Levi’s Hell”. For anyone who knows anything about The Bible they get a certain expectation of what’s to come because of who Leviticus was and indeed what’s contained in the book of Leviticus.
  8. Consider a particularly poignant or important quality in your character and find a name which matches it OR a foreign translation of it. My partner had come away from his international wanderings with the name Selâle (She-lah-ley) in his head for a daughter, after the owners of a hostel he worked in had a daughter named that (the name means waterfall)
  9. Jump on Facebook and use the first name which comes up in your news feed (again best for bit players). Best for first names – rather than surnames

Most of all – have fun naming your characters. And if the worst comes to the worst, you won’t have to turn to D-Poll to legally change the name of any of your characters should they decide to opt out of your choice. In the immortal words of Shakespeare:  “That which we call a rose… By any other name would smell as sweet.”

What are your favourite character names from a book – weird, wonderful or plane obscure? Or a favourite from your stable of characters.

Jodi Cleghorn apologises profusely for the break in the “Knowing Your Process” serial. Despite plugging away at the “how” of writing this afternoon – time, school holidays and the demands of both got the better of Jodi. You’ll have it next week – promise! You can find more of Jodi’s musings at Writing in Black and White.
  1. June 28, 2010 3:59 am

    I like the site for names for characters particularly if they’re migrants. That’s where I got Kurush.

  2. adampb permalink
    June 28, 2010 8:05 am

    Being a teacher I have a wonderful resource at my disposal for names if my protagonist is from that demographic. I have used the names of my grandparents for older characters, or names from other elderly relatives. I have searched for the meaning of names to fit, or abbreviated. Sometimes, the name just seems to it the character I have sitting in my head.

  3. June 28, 2010 11:46 am

    I usually have a few baby name books around. The New Age Baby book is fantastic for different names. Also, I work around a lot of names and when I see one I like, I jot it down, mix and match with surnames…

    I’m a fan of using male names for female characters, although that means I’m always behind on male character names. Sigh.

  4. June 28, 2010 3:20 pm

    Excellent suggestions! This is something I definitely struggle with. I have printed this post out and will keep it in my writer’s folder. Thanks!

  5. mmarier permalink
    June 28, 2010 6:00 pm

    Most of my Names are pulled out of the ether, with few exceptions.

    The weirdest one would have to be my Zenigata/Clousseau-like detective, Inspector Buford P. Slaven. His name is taken from my Grandparent’s Cat. Buford Pusser was a black and white moggy, and my Gpa used to tell daring tales of his adventures. I wanted to keep the tradition alive with the Inspector.

  6. June 30, 2010 12:20 am

    When I taught adult ed. we got names to populate databases with by typing in a hundred or so names from the phone book, with the first name in one column, middle initial in another and, finally, the last name in a third column. There was also a column with numbers. Using any combination of columns, sort in any order you choose. Do that a couple more times. There … 100 names of people who -sound- realistic but (probably) don’t exist.

    Need more names? Copy the sorted list below the original one for as many additional names as needed, then sort a few more times.

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