Writer’s Craft #86 Finding Character Names
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?