In his painfully funny 2006 book, Famous Writing School, a Novel, Stephen Carter’s writing teacher-protagonist advises his students to seek character names in the obituaries. But although Carter’s bumbling protagonist offers mostly dubious advice, that tip is a keeper. Obits are full of great names. I keep a list in a notebook by the breakfast table. I haven’t yet written about Normal Peasley or Lamia Trowbridge, but they’re ready when I need them.
My favorite name source is spam, although, since I increased my security, it isn't as colorful as it used to be. Every morning I used to cull a few from my “bulk” inbox before I deleted them. I still can always perk up a story by subjecting my heroine to a blind date with Zoticus Weatherwax or Hassan Snively.
Creative monikers don’t just add color and humor to storytelling. They help the reader keep track of a large cast, and offer a shorthand reminder of their identities. Instead of calling the pizza delivery guy “Bob,” if you give him an interesting ethnicity, a cowboy hat and a name like Galveston Ngyen, readers will remember him when he shows up dead 50 pages later.
Here are some basic guidelines for naming characters.
1) Name only players, not spear carriers. Don’t clutter the story with too many names. A named character needs to play a significant role. Just call him “the pizza guy” if his only purpose is to deliver pepperoni with extra cheese.
2) Choose names that are different from each other. Names that begin with the same letter can be confusing on the page: no rival boyfriends named Tim and Tom unless your heroine can’t tell them apart either.
Note: this doesn’t apply to real or well-known characters. An agent once told me I couldn’t put characters named Morgan and Merlin in the same novel. Rules are helpful, but abolishing the entire Grail saga is a bit much.
3) Don’t change names mid-story. In real life, an indigenous person called Fall-in-the-Fire might change his name to Jump-in-the-Pond after his vision quest, but it’s better to use the same identification throughout. That way Reader-of-Fiction won’t morph into Throws-Book-Out-Window.
4) Choose names to fit the era. A recent editing client called a contemporary fifty-year-old librarian “Mildred”—an unlikely name for a Baby Boomer. I suggested Linda or Judy. On the other hand, Linda and Judy don’t even rank in the top thousand names for the last decade. If your character is under twelve, try Madison, Kayla or Ada.
I made a period mistake myself when reworking an old story. Morgan was an unusual name for a girl when I wrote the piece fifteen years ago. Now it’s way more common than Anne.
You can look up American baby names by decade at the Social Security Administration site.
But remember US, Canadian, Aussie and Brit names differ. Hyphenated names like Jean-Claude and Mary-Ellen are rare in the UK. But Zara, Nigella and Callum—all popular in England now—don’t appear on any US lists. (But keep Nigella out of that Regency Romance. Cross check with your Jane Austen collection.) One of the top 25 names for Canadian girls is Brooklyn--who knew all those polite Canadians were such New York-ophiles? (Wadda you lookin' at?)
UK names by decade are available at the government statistics website.
For naming Canadians try the Perfect Baby Names site. And for Australians (including Aboriginal names and their meanings) try Babynology.
5) Don’t fake foreign or antique names. Your Roman gladiator can be named Brutus or Africanus, but don’t try Waynus or Garthus. (Ancient Roman first names were not numerous, which is why they called their kids stuff like “Quintus” and “Octavian” (literally, “five” and “eight.”) As adults, Romans often earned Mafia-style nicknames. The poet Ovid was known as Ovidius Naso—Ovid the Nose.)
Genealogy sites are great for historical names, and for contemporary foreign names, surf around the many baby-naming websites.
6) Give your character’s name a Google before going forward. I recently wanted to name a porn star Peter McHugh until a Google search showed a local County Supervisor with that name.
7) Avoid over-used names. It’s hard to know these if you don’t slog through weekly slush piles, but I’ve seen agents complain that all variations of Catherine/Kate/Caitlin have become ho-hum. Ditto Jake/Jack. Browse new books in your genre for patterns.
8) Run a final search-and-replace if you change a character’s name. That’s one I learned the hard way. I sent out requested partials to two agents before I realized I’d reverted to the old name for an entire chapter. That might not have been the only reason for my rejections, but I know it didn't help. Sigh.
PS—I’ve had some great responses to this post both in the comments section and via email.
1) Hampshireflyer gives a scary example of why you REALLY want to Google all your character names before you publish them. Especially in the UK. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-416690/Cabaret-singer-wins-libel-claim-crime-writer.html
2) Paul Fahey says for foreign names, he finds the
Writers Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon very useful, although he wishes it had more cross-referencing.