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Writer’s Craft #86 Finding Character Names

August 20, 2012
Kathryn Sullivan

Kathryn Sullivan

Kathryn Sullivan is the author of young adult fantasies The Crystal Throne,  Agents & Adepts, and Talking to Trees (published by Amber Quill Press).  Her short stories and essays have appeared in several anthologies, the most recent in Clockwork Spells and Magical Bells (Kerlak Enterprises). She can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathryn.sullivan or on her website at http://kathrynsullivan.com/ .


When choosing a character name, I feel that what the character’s name means is important, even if no one else in the story (including the character) knows.  That’s why I have eight baby name books, three books about surnames and links to several baby name sites.

For YA or children’s books, consider how a name shifts over time. ‘Elizabeth’ was probably happy to be known as ‘Betsy’, ‘Beth’, or ‘Lizzie’ in grammar school, but come college, she may want to be called ‘Elizabeth’.

Foreign language dictionaries are also useful. True, many words in a dictionary aren’t used as names. When you’re creating a new world, however, it’s a starting point. Then you change the spelling slightly.

Names can be passed down to honor family members. It’s not uncommon to have several generations in a row (grandfather, father, son, or grandmother, mother, daughter, etc.) with the same first name. Or a first name moved to the middle name. A family is one of the times I would ignore the ‘rule’ of not having characters with the same name (or first initial) in a story. This is also when nicknames come in handy, such as Joseph, Joe and Joey to distinguish the generations.

Phone books can be a useful resource, but in small town Winona that means an overabundance of Polish, Norwegian and Swedish names.

I have commencement lists from several years of university graduations. Those have a good collection of first, middle and last names, which help me figure out what names work well together (and several examples of ‘what were the parents thinking?’).

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

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2012 6:27 am

    Regarding names being reused within families, I was helping a friend research her family history in church records in Glasgow. I came across a family with brothers named John and James who both got married, shared the same house, and each had two sons named John and James. I wonder how they kept them all straight.

  2. August 20, 2012 7:18 am

    Most of my character names come out of the same place my characters do – my subconscious. I have found some help using online name generators for different cultures, including made-up ones like Klingon. Many times if my story isn’t working, I’ll take another look at character names. Just changing the name of one character is sometimes enough to get everyone in line and the story moving.

  3. Lynda Williams permalink
    August 20, 2012 7:25 am

    Me too, Jaleta. The older the roots of the character in the ORU the greater the chance I made it up out of thin air in my teens. Like Ameron and Nersal. Somewhere around 2000 I decided the Demish have a habit of picking names out of old Earth books–in various states of ignorance about the meaning of the words. Hence “Kale” in Part 2: Righteous Anger, “Anatolia” is Part 2: The Courtesan Prince. And when we start to meet the powerful conservatives of Lion House in Part 7: Healer’s Sword, they are named for gods of old Earth pantheons.

  4. August 20, 2012 10:41 am

    Interesting! I have a different approach. I make up names. Sometimes I just listen for a name. In other cases, I do some research in the Dictionary of Word Origins. Wrote a post about that: http://www.starseersprophecy.com/evoking-a-different-world/

  5. August 20, 2012 3:15 pm

    I take into consideration the ethnic origin of the character, the temperament and personality, and the family relations. I often use names of friends and family. If I meet someone with an unusual name, I tell them I’m going to steal it, and It may end up in a later book. Finally, some friends have asked me to use their names, and I have.

  6. August 20, 2012 8:49 pm

    Re: Toseek: Me faither was from Glesga, and he told me what the rules were. Tradition is that the oldest son’s 1st son is named after his own father…the second son is named after the Mom’s father. Subsequent boys can be chosen names, but expected to be ones of dead relatives. The first daughter is named after the Mom’s mother, the 2nd daughter is named after the Dad’s mother, and subsequent girls can be given other family names. Hence my Uncle Williy, or Will as my Dad called him, was the oldest boy, so he was named after his Dad’s father. My Dad was the 2nd son, so he was named after their Mom’s father. Their two sisters were named accordingly also. You had to have more than 4 kids to be even able to pick a name! The Scots were hide-bound traditionalists! And for the record, I’m probably the only romance author who will NEVER write or even read a romance involving a man in a kilt! The accent reminds me too much of my Dad and he was so NOT sexy to me!

    I pick names for my characters by ethnicity, I go to internet lists of names for that nationality or religion. For sci-fi, I make them up.

  7. Sue Burke permalink
    August 21, 2012 1:38 am

    I think it can also be useful to remember that names come and go in fashion. It’s possible to guess my age just by knowing my name is Susan. In fact, if I’m in a group of women my age, usually two or three of us will be named Susan, even if there are only a half-dozen of us in total.

    This can be a fast way to help readers identify the age of a character, if the story is set more or less in consensus reality, and age-appropriate names can make the story seem more real.

    If I name a character Saffron, she was probably born in the Summer of Love. Hosea was probably born two hundred years ago. Michael is always a popular name, and it cuts across religious and ethic lines.

  8. August 21, 2012 4:23 am

    I particularly appreciated your comment that even the character doesn’t have to know what their name means! I can’t get to grips with a character properly until I’ve found the right name for them, but I very rarely mention the origin or significance of their name in the novel, so usually neither the reader nor the character knows where the name comes from. For me, getting the right name is an essential part of building the character, but it’s not an essential part of the narrative, so it tends to stay a private satisfaction. Several of my favourite character names are: Tangaroa for a Blue Man of the Minch (a sea-going Scottish character, but named after a Pacific god), Bunsen for a dragon, Rona and Roxburgh for selkies, and Catesby for a phoenix (but why I chose that name is a riddle I will never explain!)

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