Monday, May 10, 2010


When I popped about the blogsophere this morning, I noticed naming characters seems to be the subject preying on many writers' minds. So, ever searching for a post, I've decided to throw my two cents into the ring.

I use baby-naming sites. I look up the lists of popular names for the year (or close enough) to the year the character would have been born. Nine times out of ten, the name pops out at me. I've investigated a few name-generating sites, but I've never used them to name a character. I suspect this is because these names tend to be modern-day and that's not when I write.

I name main characters first, supporting characters second, pop-in characters I (honestly) usually name as I'm writing.

I try to avoid names that sound too much alike. I'm not going to have a Diane and a Diana. Neither am I going to have a Mary and a Gary (unless they're twins - but I doubt even then).

I aim for every main character's name to start with a different letter, as I know it's easier for readers to keep track of the little beasties. I don't always succeed. In my current WiP, I've got two names starting with 'R'. I've decided it's fine since these two characters team up and I like the alliteration. Having readers think of these two characters together is not a bad thing.

I try to avoid odd names - names that are hard to pronounce or have eccentric spelling. I write mysteries, so I don't need to worry about 'alien names' for the inhabitants of a distant world. Also, since my plots take place in the past, some names might sound old-fashioned. They weren't old-fashioned then. Today's Tiffany is yesterday's Thelma.

I won't use names with personal connections, simply because these names come with luggage. I don't need characters showing up on the boarding platform of me brainstorming a plot with luggage already in hand. I'll load them down soon enough.

I pick my names early - long before I know the character down to the ground. If I've chosen badly, I find out fairly quickly. If I'm having trouble finding the character's voice, it's usually because I've given the poor creature the wrong name.

I love naming characters. It's the one of the first tentative steps of any new plot - baby steps, if you will. No wonder I use the baby-naming lists!


  1. I look up the lists of popular names for the year (or close enough) to the year the character would have been born...

    That is exactly what I do! To me the names are also very important (the right period + the right kind of name for the person).

  2. Once again, we learn we were separated at birth. I could have written this post word for word. It is exactly how I name characters.

  3. Ooh, what a delicious post, Elspeth. When I get to this stage, this will be so helpful. Thanks.

  4. Dorte; Names are so important, aren't they? And the RIGHT name...

    Carol; Selfishly, I glad you didn't - because then I'd still be staring at a blank screen.

    Karen; Glad to help out!

  5. I use the social security roles for the most popular names and try to go about ten or so down the list so it isn't too popular.

  6. Patti; I rarely use the ones at the top of the list - I'm far more likely to find my names in the bottom half. In my mystery games aimed at teen girls - I go with the most popular possible. They love having their real names (or names of their friends) as characters in the games!

  7. Ha! I love "today's Tiffany is tomorrow's Thelma.." So true!

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I think I'm one of your character-naming friends right now. :)

  8. Elizabeth; Your status on Facebook about naming characters was one of the first things I saw this morning. I hope your naming is going well. Pick one inappropriate name just for your own amusement. It can be fun.

  9. I name characters for fun. I don't even write books! For instance, in the mystery genre: The spinster secretary at New Scotland Yard: Minerva Pickles
    Have fun writing! molly

  10. I don't like characters with first and last names with the same letter...alliterative names, so to speak. I'm reading a book right now that has one of those characters and it's really bugging me! I love the book, but hate that character name.

    Naming them...I just name as it comes. I tend to use boring names, b/c I think most people have boring names. And then I met Elspeth...SO maybe I should rethink that!

    Southern City Mysteries

  11. Baby naming sites are wonderful. I've also found looking at "friend's friend" lists on Facebook to be a rich source of names, particularly last names.

  12. MollyC: What a fun name for a character!

    Michele; I can't stand alliterative names for characters either - they sound like cartoon characters to me. I'm glad you don't think Elspeth is a boring name - but I can assure you it IS a pain in the patootie.

    Lisa; Last names can be tricky, can't they? It takes me much longer to come up with surnames than first names. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment!

  13. Great post! I use the book "The Baby Name Wizard" for naming my characters. It includes little graphs that tell when the names peaked in popularity and gives good brother/sister name suggestions that are similar in style. I used the same book to name my daughter! :)

  14. I've been known to raid the membership roster of an organization I worked for (but never first and last names of the same people). It was an international organization, which helped when I needed a non-US name.

    I keep a basic spreadsheet of the alphabet to make sure I don't get bogged down with "M" names, etc.

    Sometimes I get stuck when a throwaway character in one book reappears with page time in the next--can't change them, so I've had to deal with a Jennifer and a Jeanne on the same page.

  15. Amongdahlias; That sounds like a great tool - I'll definitely check it out. Thanks!

    Terry; I use UK-based lists for my British characters. I should do a spreadsheet; I seem drawn to "M" names for some odd reason. I'll remember your experience when I move on to the next in the series.

  16. Elspeth - Thanks so much for sharing the way you go about naming characters. You've got some wise ideas, too! Baby naming sites are great. I have to admit, my characters' names just are there - they come to me. Once I figure out the name, then I know what the character will be like. That's what has happened to me for most of my writing, and I couldn't even explain it coherently. But names really are essential parts of characters' identities. Paying attention to them matters.

  17. I use the baby name sites as well. They're great. I do have a long list of names I could only use for certain personalities because as a teacher I've met a lot of kids who have embedded their personalities into the names. :)

  18. Since many streets are named after people, I often use street names for my characters. I just pick streets from another town in another state so, for instance, Detective Trilby doesn't get caught driving down Trilby Road.

  19. I hate naming characters. I usually ask my husband to come up with names for me. If he can't I think that's a great idea - baby name book.


  20. Nice post! Last Friday I posted five ways I find character names, and my list doesn't include a baby name site or book! But I do check or for the origins and meanings of names I've picked!

  21. Margot; It does work like that sometimes, doesn't it? I've found if I'm wrong, I realize it fairly quickly.

    Jemi; I should think you'd have a great deal of names that come embedded with personalities. Could be a positive, could be a negative.

    Patricia; Aren't you clever! I've never thought about using street names - what a wonderful resource. Thanks!

    Clarissa; It can be fun. Maybe you could try another of my tricks - if I can't find a name I give the character a descriptive one like "Eats everything boy" or "All about the shoes girl". The actual name presents itself eventually.

    Laura; Thank you! I'll have to check out your Friday post. You bring up an important point too, name meanings can be rather significant.

  22. Naming can be a bit of a challenge. I also use baby name books and the phone directory.


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