During a talk I recently gave, one man asked how I came up with names for my characters. I told him the truth, that a lot of times I pick up a newspaper, find names, and mix first and last names up (so I don’t use someone’s real name). That works best for secondary characters. Usually with with my main characters the names just come to me, but even then there have been times when I start with a name and find I need to change it along the way because it doesn’t seem to fit the character.
Back in 2015 I blogged about how I have a habit of repeating names (in different books). I do seem to have favorites. I have additional information about picking names in that blog (Names ), but the question about picking names prompted me to look into this topic a little more thoroughly.
Let’s say I’m working on a new book: all new characters, new setting, new conflict. How do I come up with a name for my main character?
- First I need to know the time period for the story. A name that would fit a character in one time period might not be appropriate in another. To check for names popular for various time periods. (At least as far back as Social Security has records) go to: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/decades/
- Even though I write contemporary mysteries, I still need to know how my character will be referred to throughout the book. Will it generally be by her first name? (This would be common for contemporary novels, but not as common for historical novels.) By her full name? Or by her full name or her last name along with a title? (Mrs. Martha Williams, Doctor Williams.) Will other characters call her by her last name most of the time? (If my character is a minor character, she might simply be the old witch, the nosy neighbor, or the doctor.)
* Be careful about using nicknames and switching from one form to another. That can be confusing to the reader. The reader might not realize Martha, Marty, Mar, and Big Martha are the same person.
* BUT, it isn’t confusing if the switch is made due to the situation. Dr. Williams to a patient, Martha Williams when being introduced to a group, and Martha to friends.
- Do I want the name to have a subtle meaning? Allie Hope for a character who will bring hope to others. Maybe not so subtle: Cookie Baker, who’s known for her baking skills. Or Polly Bender, who can twist the truth many ways? (J.K. Rowlings had fun with characters’ names in her Harry Potter books.)
- Whatever I name my main character, I want to make sure I don’t give similar sounding names to other characters in the story or it’s going to confuse the reader. (Do I really want Cookie and Snookie to go shopping together? Maybe Polly and Paul are working on a project together, but will my reader be able to remember who did what?)
Names can also hint at the character and the character’s past. Do I want this character to blend-in or stand-out? If it’s a strange name, was she teased as a child? Did she hate her name as a child? Is her name always being confused with someone else’s? Is she proud of her name? And so on…
Want to have some fun coming up with names? Go to the name generator:
or try this one: http://random-name-generator.info/random/?n=10&g=3&st=1
Want not only a name but also characteristics. Check out: http://character.namegeneratorfun.com/
So you don’t duplicate a name that’s already been used, go to this site for a list of names used in well-known books: