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Need help coming up with character names?


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Naming characters has always been one of the most difficult parts of writing, for me. At once point, my method was to open a CD at random and point to a band member's name. Well, this site makes it a bit simpler:

http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/

If you scroll down, it will allow you to enter any birth year to see the most popular baby names from that year.

So if your story is set in 2011 and your characters are 18, type in 1993 and see what comes up.

These are the records from the US Social Security Administration, so it's a bit more accurate than other "baby names" sites.

Granted, you may have names in mind already for your main characters, but this is a quick way to come up with realistic names for extras.

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Names seem to go in cycles.

I don't remember ever meeting a "Brandon" until the eighties, which was lousy with them.

Another trick for names: pull out a phone book. You'll find plenty.

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I like to use names which, somehow, and probably only to me, help describe a person's character. A Brad, to me, is a much different person than, say, an Evan. So, I almost always decide what the character is going to be like before I name him. And sometimes, late in the game, I'll change the name because the traits the character has developed are no long suitable, to me, with the name I picked.

I picked Elam as the name for my character in my High Plains story mostly because his character was something of a cipher to me. He had a lot of self-control, a lot of self-discipline and self-reliance, and there was no name I could think of that suggested those characteristics to me. So, I chose a name that didn't speak to me in any way at all.

I guess I don't worry too much about secondary characters. I just pick a name that works.

This probably doesn't help at all, does it?

C

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I sometimes use character names symbolically.

No one caught it- well no one mentioned it- but in the Barlow Boy the two characters were Chris and Peter.

Their argument was based on some of the discussions between the original Chris and Peter.

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What makes me crazy are writers that either use character names that are distractingly off-beat, or names that are much too similar (and confusing). To me, you have to pick names that are distinctive but also different, both in sound, but also in number of syllables (or at least vowels or emphasis).

But I agree -- the social security reference is a pretty good idea. At least you can see at a glance which qualifies as popular names from given eras.

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What makes me crazy are writers that either use character names that are distractingly off-beat, or names that are much too similar (and confusing). To me, you have to pick names that are distinctive but also different, both in sound, but also in number of syllables (or at least vowels or emphasis).

With you 100% on avoiding similar names. I swear I've read stories about Jase, Jake, Jack, and Jess that have made me bail from sheer confusion as soon as there was a conversation with all four of them in the room.

Culture/setting makes a difference, though: the top Social Security names only reflect the majority, and "distractingly off-beat" is in the ears of the listener. For instance, I had a student named John, and the name struck me as downright strange, because the rest of his classmates had names like Undelontz, Jza'Artist, and Takeelah. To my ears, John had become a "distracting" name. In my neighborhood, if you name your boy "Daniel" or your girl "Emily," (two of the top Social Security picks) people start looking at you funny.

Ironically, the most common name in my school? "Unique."

My general rule of thumb is that if a character's name doesn't mesh with his/her culture, it should make sense within the context of that character's family. Thesaurus Jones was the son of two librarians, Rye Peterson's mom wrote her thesis on Salinger, Qwerty Smith's dad headbutted a keyboard and picked the first few letters he came up with (he was a bit of a drinker, that one).

(I know I'm not telling you anything you don't know, Pec - this is mainly for the sake of any rookies who might be reading this looking for naming advice.)

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Ironically, the most common name in my school? "Unique."

Ironically indeed!

I've only seen that name once. I follow a college women's basketball team rather avidly, and a few years ago, they had a player with that name. First time I encountered it, and the only time. It being the most common name in any situation amazes me.

The announcer had problems with it. Her first year playing, he'd quibble back and forth with it. It was u-NEE-kay half the time, u-NEEK the other half. He'd obviously not come across it before either.

Oh, and E/C? I love your Thesaurus Jones, Rye Peterson and Qwerty Smith explanations, wryly apocryphal as they may be. Why, with an imagination like that, you could be a writer!

C

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  • 7 months later...

Good topic. Especially since character names give me trouble.

Lately, I've started using generic placeholders when I write down idea snippets or rough draft pieces. At some point, if the idea sticks and the story grows, the characters will hopefully name themselves. It's that, or I'll have to pick a name somehow. So, my notes will have things like, Boy1, Guy2, Girl3, Woman4, or something that describes the character, Tall5, Brash6, things like that. No, it's not great.

Before, I'd generally have a name that would suggest itself with the character. But I am a little finicky about trying to avoid names of friends, unless it's a really common name. And if you have several story ideas going, you need a lot of names and you don't want to repeat yourself.

The baby naming sites are OK. I like trying to give a name that means something or is culturally likely for that character. So looking up meanings helps.

That Thesaurus Jones example? I've seen similar. I can't think of a particular example right now, but a few have really surprised me.

Then there are things like foreign names, where an immigrant's name gets mispronounced or misspelled. Or a name that's perfectly fine English or European that people can never seem to spell right. I've known people who went by their initials or went by a common English name, because no one could get their real name. Or they may take (or be given) an English name when they immigrate, for the same reason.

Or there's the problem I have: I go by my middle name. This causes problems all the time when people don't know me and only see my official name on forms. To add to it, my first name is, well, in the US, it's usually a girl's name. Don't blame me or my parents, it was my grandparents who gave that name to my dad, and my mom and dad passed it on. And no, I'm not telling. But yeah, I get mail or calls for Ms./Miss/Mrs. Blue occasionally. Bummer, huh? Now add to that a last name that almost nobody gets right, spelling or pronunciation, even people who've known me for years. I once stopped counting at twenty alternate spellings. The weirdest part? It's only one letter away from two very common English last names.

I once knew a kid who went by Spike. Another kid went by initials. One of my best friends went through the couple of years I knew him, switching from Robert to Bobby, back and forth.

Then there's the issue of remarriages and separate names, step-kids, fostering and adoptions. So your character might have a different last name, or it might get changed.

Or, the world's best camouflage? Have a name so very common, and not just John Smith, that you'd probably never find it even in a web search.

But absolutely, names like EleCivil mentioned are pretty common. You can't assume all characters come from a white middle class background. Some places, that white boy/girl/man/woman would be the only one around.

And if mom or dad (or grandma or grandpa) are not too good at spelling, well, you can get some really unusual names. That happens today, but it was way more common two or three generations ago. One friend's mom actually flip-flops all the time between calling one daughter Danita or Danica (but say it like da-NEE-ka). I had to ask the daughter how SHE spelled and pronounced it, because she had a better chance at an education. And this affects not just minorities. Rural or city folks, generally poor, tend to have the problem. Or they may have dyslexia or other issues. On the other hand, poor kids may ace spelling and grammar.

Then there are the cases where a character might have nicknames or even aliases. That may be because of spelling/pronunciation issues at home, or because it might be necessary for that character to have, ah, choices of nomenclature and identity in order to be mobile, for instance. Or perhaps to remain legal if there might be, ah, disagreements on who was doing what, where and when. Or even if the record's spotless, that could be an escape hatch, say. Some people or families or groups do that.

Now, you might also have a rather non-conformist character or someone so memorable that he or she gets a nickname that sticks better than their real name. No, this is not just Bubba or Spike or tough-guy nicknames. Yes, it might be a counter-culture / alternative character. Or it might be some guy or girl who's just...memorable like that.

Avoid the temptation to name the character after yourself, first or last or both names. If you do, your readers and your editor and possibly your friends may wonder what's up with that. At least, they'll probably think you weren't using your imagination much. Try not to do that unless you're writing an autobiography for real.

One last bit of advice: Don't try to go for unusual names too often. Most people have common, ordinary names, and that can be a plus for a character who is (or should be) an Everyman or Everywoman. Sometimes John or Mary are a lot more unique than their everyday names might make you think at first glance. Do try to include non-English names some, because not all your readers (or your friends) have English origins, or even European origins. If you give a character a foreign name, though, do try to make sure it makes sense in that language. You probably don't want a guy with a girl's name. (He will at least not be too thrilled.) You don't want the name to say something too, ah, silly or bad in that language or its immediate ancestors, most of the time. If you do choose to do so, then have a really good reason for it, and get that reason up front so the reader is clued in before he/she laughs and puts the book down. I mean, the screen.

Totally separate, but try to mention early on if your character has a certain hair color or style. "What, Johnny has red hair? You tell me this in the last twenty pages of the book? I thought he had brown hair all along. He didn't dye it...." Related: Please, don't use the "driver's license" approach of listing all the stats of a character's looks right away, unless somebody's actually reading it from a license or dossier or rap sheet. As an editor and a reader, I will roll my eyes at that and likely put it in the slush pile. Don't do the "mirror" approach either, same reason, unless you have a really, really good reason the character's looking in a mirror describing himself/herself. (Golly, isn't Bubba-Jack conceited, mooning over himself in the mirror like that? Could send the wrong message and turn off the readers.)

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Guest Dabeagle

This one has gotten me into trouble before. I have to confess that certain names I like so much I reuse them, and sometimes I have used variations of the same name in a story and I can easily, now, see the confusion I may have created. I love the name Chris, because I associate that with so many of the good experiences I've had with people with that name. I also love the name Jake, and I only ever knew one back in grade school, and not well so...no idea where that came from.

Names are vitally important to me because they do, indeed, reflect some sort of definition to the character, to me. While writing something new I can go along just fine until it comes time to actually use the characters name and that will frequently bring the story to a stop until I have something suitable. I like choosing slightly less common names but still recognizable. Oliver, I find is less common, but still well enough known for instance. Also as my friend Josh Aterovis has said to me (I paraphrase) you want a character name that sticks, thus Killian Kendall versus John Smith.

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behindthename.com

I love this one because it gives you meanings for names. So, you can fit a name to a character. You might be the only one to know why the cutest boy in the story is named Kevin or why the one who likes to tinker with mechanical things is named Wayne, but I think the fact that you know helps to keep that character's actions in line with who you want them to be.

Not that I always do this for characters. Sometimes you just like a name no matter what the meaning.

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Naming characters isn't a unique problem. Many writers have problems with this.

Ok- think this one through- you are writing a novel. You are going to write the protagonists name 5000 times. Would you rather write Tom or Trevor or Bob or Bartholomew? This is NOT a difficult question. Call a kid Bartholomew and he's going to punch you in the mouth. It's the name his mom uses when he's in big trouble. It's the name the bullies use to get under his skin. Every other day it's Bart.

Don't be cute with names. I can't tell you how many stories with cutsie-pootsie ( :spank: ) names I have summarily DISMISSED. It adds nothing and is completely obnoxious.

Names don't have to be a misery. If you are of a certain age you've heard a million of them. Think about names you heard in school or in sports. Instantly I come up with Jeff Copeland and Joe Drummond- first names were kids I knew- last names were college sports players.

If worst comes to worse: check this out:

Character Naming Sourcebook

Sherrilyn Kenyon

ISBN 1-58297-295-4

http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Digest-Character-Naming-Sourcebook/dp/1582979200/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320617093&sr=1-1

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Character names? Since a story often has me typing a name every few minutes I generally choose a short four character name if at all possible. The exception would be if the basis for a character is someone I might know, or have known in the past. Then using the name in tribute allows me to imagine them once again and inspires the writing.

To each his own, but if I cannot pronounce the name it just becomes another impediment to reading the story, like poor grammar and spelling errors. I would hope the readers embrace the characteristics of the people in the story and not worry about the names as much. Otherwise we might as well name every character Bob.

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You are going to write the protagonists name 5000 times. Would you rather write Tom or Trevor or Bob or Bartholomew? This is NOT a difficult question. -- James

Since a story often has me typing a name every few minutes I generally choose a short four character name if at all possible. -- Chris

Hey guys! I suppose you, like me, write using Word, or at least a word processing program. That being the case, you can easily make your character Bartholomew, or the name have any number of letters. Just use an easier name when writing, then use the REPLACE function when you're finished to make the name whatever you want it to be.

Because that's possible, I usually don't worry much about my names when I'm beginning to write. I'll frequently change a name to something else when I'm finished and his character traits are all put to bed.

C

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When you use replace for names, just be really careful to proof for variants like nicknames, possessives ( -'s, -s', -' ), titles like Mr., and other gotchas. In general, proof after using replace, because sometimes you'll get unexpected results.

Whenever doing a major search and replace like that, always save an earlier draft (with another file name) until you're satisfied that the new draft is fine. The same goes for major editing or rewrites. Always keep at least the previous draft. That way, if you don't like something or want to add something back, or if you have an unintended screw up, you'll still be OK.

That may seem obvious, until it's 2 a.m., you're in a hurry, and pow! something goes wonky. (If it goes wanky, that's another issue altogether....) Or if, a few days later, you decide the last writing session was partly brilliant and partly crap, you still have a way to get back to where you started without too much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

No, I'm not too sure why you'd be in a big hurry at 2 a.m. Maybe sleep? But you get the idea. You get in a hurry, things happen.

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