Here’s one of the biggest challenges in writing fiction: character names. If you’re one of the many writers who can’t work on your novel’s plot or on character development until you get your main characters’ names “right”, you’ve got grounds for endless procrastination.
Finding character names is an ongoing hassle. Not only do you need to find names for your current project, it’s a never-ending task for fiction authors. This is why I suggest you collect books of baby names (see below.)
Let’s look at some tips to help you to find names, but first, let’s talk about genre.
Great character names evoke emotion, so start with your genre
You can’t go far wrong in naming your characters if you start out thinking about the GENRE. Bestselling books in your genre usually give you an insight into acceptable names in that genre. Tip: you’re not looking at the names as much as you’re thinking about the emotions evoked by those names.
James Bond is an amazing name for the spy genre. What emotions does the name evoke? Everyone knows James Bond, so of course it’s hard to separate the name from the movie franchise.
Think about George Smiley, who appears in “John le Carré’s first novel, and introduced one of fiction’s most famous spies – George Smiley, who is both brilliant and unremarkable.” “George Smiley” is an excellent character name for a spymaster, because the last thing Smiley wants to be is memorable. 🙂
Onward to the tips…
1. Have fun with it: try a name generator
Some authors like to use placeholder names, and decide on names after the first draft. I can’t do this, but I admit that I use Scrivener’s name generator to quickly create lists of potential character names.
Don’t have Scrivener? Try the Random Name Generator.
2. Avoid having two primary character names start with the same initial
When choosing names, avoid having your main characters’ names starting with the same initial. It’s confusing for readers if you have Dora, Desmond, and Daniel, all appearing within the first few chapters.
3. Hello Google: try a search for the century plus “boys names” or “girls names”
You’re writing a mystery set in the Prohibition era in New York, and you want a name for your main female character. Go to Google.com, and enter (without quotes) “20th century girls names”. You’ll find a long list of websites with names which will inspire you, all appropriate for the era — remember to think about your genre, too.
4. Collect “baby name” books, and list your favorite names
I started collecting baby name books years ago. You can never have too many. 🙂 Keep your books on a shelf where you can find them quickly.
5. Collect exotic foreign names (but check the names’ meanings)
I like to collect exotic names, with their meanings. Who knows when I’ll need a name for a Celtic princess who lived three centuries B.C.E.? 🙂
Other sources for names: they’re everywhere
I’ve made lists of character names from the credits’ lists in movies, from magazine mastheads, and from member lists in organizations. Whenever you come across a name which evokes an emotion in you, jot it down. The emotion is key, because fiction is all about emotion. 🙂 Have fun with it…