Friday, July 20, 2012

Finding Character Names

At CONvergence 2012, one of the panels I was able to attend was "Naming Characters". The enticing description was "The secret art of coming up with good names for your characters". Panelists included Tamora Pierce, SN. Arly, Scott Jamison, Sean M. Murphy and Veronica Cummer.

Several of the panelists agreed with the standard "what the character's name meant was important", even if no one else in the story knew the meaning of the name or even what their own name meant.

To put that much work into choosing a name is understandable for the major characters. But what about for the walkon characters? The ones that may only have one or two lines? The thing is, though, sometimes you never know how important a character may become. I've lost count of how many times I've heard about a minor character suddenly taking over the story. Sometimes that might mean renaming the character. Sometimes the name already in place works. But why take chances?

So where do you find character names? I still have six or seven baby name books and books about surnames from the days before the internet. Several of the panelists mentioned baby name books as well. There are websites for baby names and character names. Some of the websites, however, don't list as many names or meanings as my paper books. Some useful websites (unfortunately with ads) are Baby names and Baby Name Wizard. There are many others out on the web.

Several of the panelists listed how many foreign language dictionaries they have. I have Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Russian, Spanish, German, and Swahili and used the Hungarian and Slavic dictionaries at the university library. Now, true, many of the words in a dictionary are not often used as names. When you're creating a new world (whether fantasy or science fiction), however, you can use the dictionaries as a starting point. Then, as several panelists also suggested, you change the spelling slightly.

One of my characters in Talking to Trees has such a name. But I decided to have a bit of fun with it after hearing complaints from nonfantasy readers about the long names in fantasy stories.

Jody looked around at the trees as she nibbled on the strip. "You know what I think, ah..." She still couldn't remember that girl's name. Till..will.. "Willow. I think we should--"

The girl's eyes snapped open. "My name is Twylgalit. Not Willow. Not Gally. Twyl-gaaa-lit."

Jody was surprised. Why was she making such a big fuss? It was only a name. "Hey, sorry. It's only a name."

"But it is my name. My name is important to me. In the language of my people it defines me."

"It does?"

"'Twylgalit' means 'twilight wood.' It means I am the last of my people."

"The very last?" Jody shook her head. "Creepy."

Twylgalit studied her. "Doesn't your name mean anything? What is a jody?"

Jody shrugged. "I don't know. It was one of my grandmothers. Peter was named for one of our uncles. Thank goodness, otherwise we might have been stuck with some cute twin names."

"Twin names?"

"Names starting with the same first letter. Like...oh, Brittany and Brian. Actually, I think I'd rather be called Brittany. Or maybe Caitlyn. Then Peter would have been stuck with a 'C' name like Cedric or...Clarence." She snickered. "He would have hated that."

"Even if it was his name?" Twylgalit shook her head. "I do not understand."

"Whatever," Jody said. "Anyhow, your name is too long."

Twylgalit eyed her. "Brittany is just as long."

Jody rolled her eyes. Why doesn't she understand? "Okay, your name is too hard to remember. Can't I call you something else?" Jody tried to remember the name her twin had used. It was a type of fabric or a pattern-- "Peter called you Twyl. Would that be okay?"

The girl raised her head and slowly turned to look behind her.

Jody scowled. All this fuss about her name and now she wasn't even listening to her! "I said--"

"I heard." Twylgalit turned back. " is acceptable." She lifted one foot. Clods of dirt fell away from it.

Jody continues to have name problems as they meet other characters.

She noticed the two green-skinned girls exchanging glances again. Jody had the impression they weren't saying something as well. "Hey, where's the other girl? Um, the tall one? With the leafy dress? What are your names, anyway?"

"You won't like them," said one.

"You don't like long names," said the other.

"Well, I've got to call you something," Jody insisted. "I'm Jody and she's Twyl."

"She is called Twylgalit," said the girl with the yellow-orange belt. "We heard you talking."

"You can call me Brittany," said the other girl. "I like the sound of that name."

"And I like Clarence," said the girl wearing the belt.

"I can't call you Clarence," Jody protested. "That's a boy's name."

"But I like it," the girl insisted. She looked over at the other girl. "Brittany."

"Clarence," said the girl now called Brittany. Both girls started laughing and pointing at each other.

I don't see what's so funny, Jody thought. She heard a muffled sound from Twyl, but when she glanced up at the girl, Twyl was studying the lights in the branches above them.

If you have a family in your story, sometimes names are passed down to honor family members. One of the panelists pointed out that, after his days of working for a credit agency, he recommends against naming a child for a living relative (as in the first and last name are the same) because nowadays that causes so many credit problems. But for a historical story, that would be entirely appropriate. I've been doing genealogical research on my own family and had never realized how often names were repeated. For example, I've got six Charleses and six Josephs. I finally linked the appearance of the Frank and Francis back to a great great grandmother, Franciska (or Francisca, depending on which census), and I'm sure if I ever find her parents' generation, I might find the relative that she was named after. Considering that she named her daughter Maria Franziska, there has to be a story behind that name. Throughout my family tree there were several generations in a row (grandfather, father, son, or grandmother, mother, daughter, etc.) with the same first name. Or, as with Maria, the name was moved to be the middle name. This is one of the times I would ignore the 'rule' of not having characters with the same name (or first initial) in a story.

Phone books used to be a useful resource to skim through, but perhaps that only applies to big city phone books. In small town Winona that means an overabundance of Polish, Norwegian and Swedish names. I used to be able to look through phone books for other cities at the public library, but that's no longer the case.

Because I worked at a university, I kept the commencement lists from graduations over the years. I have a good collection of first, middle and last names there to help me figure out what names work well together (and several examples of 'why would any parent would name a child that!').

Where do you find your character names? What is the most interesting name you've found?


  1. Sometimes, trying to name my characters drives me crazy. Othertimes, the name just comes to me, often from the character his/herself. I love it when that happens. Yes, the name tells us a lot about the character. I've read that Scarlett O'Hara started out as Pansy. LOL. What a differnt picture we get of this character from her name.

    I have a couple of name books, too, and like them because one gives the different countries and also the meaning of the name.

    I've also used family names from my genealogy research to name my historical characters.

    Sounds like a great conference.

  2. I can't start writing if I don't have my characters' names first, and when I'm lucky, they introduce themselves. Most of them make me figure it out, though, which is both annoying and time-consuming! I had baby name books but they disappeared somewhere into the wilds of my office. Also had a book of biblical names which was interesting. I still have old phone books. And I also keep a running list whenever I run across an interesting first or last name. (I was named for the character who drowned herself while pining over a certain Danish prince and holding a bunch of flowers -what were my parents thinking?

  3. All the places mentioned above ... and the capcha verification codes that some folk use ... also typos!

  4. I tend to start with excruciatingly dull names. Most of my male characters start as Jack or Tommy or something. Going back and making them better is part of the fun for me. And I understand them better by the time I've written more of their story. It's also something I often discuss with my writing group.

    I've used baby name sites and ethnic genealogy sites, of course, but I also really love the Social Security Administration's website: Scroll down to pick a year to see the popular names. Fascinating!

    Interesting and useful blog post--thanks!

  5. I love this excerpt from 'Talking to Trees' -- what a fun way to confront the issue of unusual names in fantasy! I especially love that one of the characters decides to go by Clarence, and Jody struggles to explain why she shouldn't. It really highlights the differences in their cultures.

  6. Until I have a name for a major character, I can't start the book. Usually the names come easily and sometimes hard. I have been known to make up names. In my current WIP. The hero's name came from a baby name book, the heroine's just appeared as did her brothers. One villain has a title rather than a name and the other name just arrived. I use the NY City phone book, an old copy for sir names and also a dictionary that has six languages and lists of both first and last names in the beginning. Names to me should have a meaning.

  7. I love the Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, 2nd ed. It breaks up names by nationality and gender. A couple of Maori, Basque, or Welsh names will liven up any story.

  8. Scrivener has a great tool - it's a name generator. You can choose male or female, as well as the nationality of the name. It's amazing, and that's all I use now.

  9. Important that they have the right name. I use baby books and love baby Wizard. Often I will give a character a name and then find further into the story it will change as I get to know them better and something else appears. Also find watching TV, footballers sometimes can end up good for surnames.