Writing 101 - Coming Up with Names (Teaching by Examples)
December 12, 2018
Issue: "How do I come up with names for my characters?"
Solution: There are numerous ways to do this! Here are a few I've used recently.
1. Name lists The internet is replete with lists of names for various nationalities, ethnicities, and more. For Scot women, I search for "Scottish female names", "Norse female names", and "Celtic female names". One could throw in "Roman female names" as well. I look through the list for something that sounds a certain way, or I might look for a specific meaning. As an example, I introduced a key character with golden skin. I looked up "Roman female names", went to a page of those, and searched for "gold". Aurelia popped up. Perfect.
2. Family, friends, co-workers Run through names in your head. If you need prompts, look through friend lists on social media, your phone contacts list, etc. Find a name that sounds right, or think of someone who matches the character, whether physically or temperamentally. You probably want to mix and match first and last names, and you can change spellings. If you know a Sandy Terrell and a Donovan Johnson, consider using Sandi Johnson and Donovan Terrell.
3. Famous people Peruse magazines, newspapers, biographies, lists of band members, IMDB, social media, etc.
1. When to choose names
Unless you are a hardcore planner, you don't have to come up with the names right away. I usually use placeholder names. At least half my stories start out with Fred and Mary. Sometimes the right name just pops into mind. Other times I reach a point I just feel the need to name the character; by then I have a good idea of who they are. Global search and replace is your friend, assuming your default names are unique from the rest of your text. Year of the Dragon Lord started off with Ford (yes, Ford) and Sally. As I started the 5th chapter, I was ready to give Ford his true name. Sally had the spunky attitude of a real Sally I know so I kept her. The real-life Sally's husband is Gerry, but Gerald felt like the better fit. Yes, it's Irish, but there was plenty of cultural intermixing even then. Gerald fit the character perfectly.
All of that said, if you are a planner, name them when it feels right, whether before or after you flesh the character out.
2. Other types of names
You can use similar methods for place names, pet names, product names, etc.
3. Get creative
If you want to make up names, or turn words or phrases into names, go to translate.google.com, type in a word or phrase, and start selecting other languages to see the translations. Read the results out loud, whether you know the correct pronunciation or not. I have named swords this way.
You might also just speak random syllables to someone, or into a tape recorder, or listen to someone speaking another language.