N is for…Names

“I had a much easier time naming my children than I ever do naming characters,” I told a class once. I was not exaggerating. Maybe it’s different because my kids were actual people; once we saw them we knew we’d chosen the right names for them. Characters might be harder because they are vague and unformed when they first emerge. At least they are for me, and I find that using the wrong name can sometimes crush an emerging character.

Then I find myself saying this months into a draft: “Megan? Why did I name her Megan?? She is so not a Megan. A Megan would NEVER do this.”

Those moments are useful in terms of character development. It signals it’s time to return to the drawing board and figure out who the character really is, along with the name and other characteristics that fit.

I’m not great at coming up with names off the top of my head. (I’m similarly bad with title.) Here are a few tools that help me:

  • Baby name books – A friend gave me a baby name book as a joke for a wedding present. (At least I think it was a joke.) I didn’t need it for either of my kids but I have used it to name entire families of characters. I also love looking up the meaning of names. For example, Julie can mean youthful, soft-haired or vivacious. So true.
  • Social Security website – The agency publishes lists of the most popular American baby names for both boys and girls by decade back to the 1880s. I find it especially useful when writing historical fiction. Did you know that Mildred was the 10th most popular girls’ name in the 1900s? Now you do.
  • Scrivener name generator – Scrivener is my absolute favorite software for writing. It’s amazing. Essentially, it’s a program that understands how writers write and has tons of tools to help manage large (and small) writing projects. And it has a name generator! I stumbled across it a few weeks ago and sometimes I just like generating names and seeing if I can think of a story that fits.

Now if I can only find a title generator….

10 thoughts on “N is for…Names

    • Same here! I do the same with place names, too – I’ve got one castle that’s had at least five different names and I still don’t like the current one.


  1. so glad you are in my A-Z queue! very useful stuff here. I’m not sure how I’ll use it yet, but am definitely going to bookmark the Soc. security website and Scriveners for future reference! Gail


  2. I love Behind the Name, which is just about the best onomastic resource on the Internet. I was really baffled when someone left an anti-BTN comment on my names blog (my secondary blog), claiming Mike C. never cites his sources and that he’s frequently wrong. That couldn’t be further from the truth! He has plenty of sources cited, if you know where to look, and he corrects unintentional errors when he’s been told, e.g., how a name is really pronounced, or if a name is used in additional countries beyond the ones he listed.

    I tend towards classical eccentric and classical unusual names (e.g., Octavia, Justine, Xiomara, Leopold, Felix, Ulysses), and usually reserve more popular or common names for secondary and minor characters. I also like lesser-used names for my characters from non-English-speaking lands, and have found a number of awesome Russian-language names sites and a Belarusian-language names site to help with this. I’m planning to expand all my own names posts from my two blogs, with a few additional posts, and release them as an e-book. I’ve got a series called “A Primer on _________________ Names,” which has included Slovenian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Persian, Hebrew, Romanian, Dutch, and many other types of names. The first post in the series, “A Primer on Russian Names,” has become my fourth-most-viewed post.


    • Thanks for the tips! Love the approach of giving more unusual names to main characters. I’ve taken a similar approach with my current WIP (a YA novel). My main character is Apollonia, but she goes by Polly. (“Well, I guess you’d have to,” says another character after meeting her.) There’s a subtle theme running through the book about her growing into her full name as she gains a better understanding of herself.


  3. Found you thanks to your comment over at Deb’s blog! I’m definitely going to have to go check out Scrivener. (I can always use a little extra help.) I think you’re right about it being difficult to name characters because they are imaginary and intangible. When they start out, they’re just a little twinkle. As they develop and gain new traits and characteristics it’s easy for them to grow away from the names we give them. I’ve done the change up thing myself…most often because I start to feel that the first-last combo I give feels overly cutesy. Glad to find you in the A to Z! Elle @ Erratic Project Junkie


    • Glad to find you, too! Scrivener is my new best friend, and not just because of the name generator. Although that’s pretty awesome in and of itself. Such a good point – that the characters grow up and away. Thank goodness for Control – Find – Replace.


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