Someone was telling me recently about a writer who gets astrological charts done for all their characters and picks their names on the basis of that. So they know what year and date their character is born but not what their name is? Huh. Whatever works, I guess.

Me, I just grab the first one that comes to mind. So far this method has worked fine. Reason got her name instantly. It just made sense. Jay-Tee I picked cause it sounded American. I mean who other than Americans call people by their initials? And Tom, well, c’mon, it’s not exactly the world’s most unusual name, is it?

Surnames are marginally trickier. If I can’t think of one I’ll look at my bookshelf and pick whichever surname fits. Sometimes I’ll look through newspapers online and grab ’em that way. I’m dead against having to get out of my chair to find names. (Reason’s family name was stolen from Rita Hayworth.)

I reckon people spend way too much time angsting about names (check out Scott’s latest book for lots of bandname angst). Nine times out of ten whatever name you randomly pick will end up working. This applies to babies, boats and pets as well as characters.

How many times have you thought a band name sounded really stupid? But the more you hear it, the more you get used to it, and the more natural it sounds. Scott always gives the example of the Beatles, which is a pretty dumb name when you think about it. Beetles spelt Beat-les as in musical beat. That’s so cutesie it winds up being completely lame. Or it would except that we’ve all heard it so many times the lameness is now invisible.

So it is with characters’ names. The only important rule (which is frequently ignored) is that if you’re writing a book with lots of names that aren’t going to be familiar to your readers make sure they begin with different letters. Cause you just know that readers are going to think of them as J unpronouncable, K likewise, L even worse and X are-you-insane. If they all begin with J—Jaquanatsuaa, Jatarganta, Juypghert and Jioplikaz, for example—your readers are not only going to be confused, they’ll want to kill you.

How do youse lot pick names for your characters? Or are you lot all as lazy as I am?


  1. may on #

    i’m one of those people who struggle, who rename and rename and rename and rename.

    depending on what i’m working on, sometimes i use baby-name sites/books, sometimes i use translation dictionaries and start from there, sometimes there’s a name whose rhythm i just like and start doodling with that.

    sometimes, it’s a mess. and usually, the first name in my wip isn’t the final name.

  2. SH on #

    first names just happen, sometimes painfully as if constipation has set in, but they do happen. but last names, i go to the white pages.

  3. veejane on #

    I once wrote a short story and, using the book-to-hand method, picked Vygotsky as the surname of a minor character. Somebody emailed me and asked, “Are you a psychology student, by any chance?”

    (If I had been, I would have known the guy is kind of famous. I picked him out of the Works Cited list of a nonfiction book.)

  4. Martha (and cat) on #

    Sometimes the name just pops up along with the character concept, but a lot of the time I cheat… I have a whole box full of index cards where I have brainstormed names and brief character descriptions. That way when I need a name I can just flip through the cards till I fund something that fits. Saves me from naming all of my characters Mark, Carter, or Toby. *grin*

    I also have an excel list of all the characters I’ve used and what I’ve used them in. Before I started tracking names (and personalities) I reused a lot of the same ones over and over. Now I check to make sure I’m not using the same person recast in a different story . . .

  5. Maggie on #

    I use the books-on-shelf method as well, and sometimes I use a little name book that I have sitting beside me (so I don’t have to get out of my chair). 😉

  6. robinwasserman on #

    In the World According to Garp, Garp collects phone books and pours through them for hours every time he needs an appropriate name for a character. I always thought that seemed like a really romantic, “writerly” way to do it. But I just pick whatever first name feels right…and for last names, I often steal from famous dead people or kids I went to elementary school with.

  7. sara z on #

    Usually my main character’s name comes to me along with the first vision of them. Sometimes I pick random names and then change them later for whatever reason. Story of a Girl has a Deanna for a protagonist, and originally her brother’s girlfriend was named Serena. On about the third draft I realized those practically rhymed, so Serena became Stacy. Once I have the mc name, I try to come up with names that include a variety of sounds and numbers of syllables for the same reasons you don’t write sentences of all the same length and pattern. i’m pretty fond of classic names that might even be boring. when I’m reading a book in which a character has a very unusual name or “wacky” nickname, it’s harder for me to stop seeing the writer’s decisions and just see the story. in fantasy or sci-fi it’s easier to suspend that disbelief, but even then my disbelief is kind of heavy and i don’t like to do too much hoisting.

  8. Diana on #

    I’m completely obsessed with character names. I love naming people so much that I did it twice in my book — once for their regular names, and once for their society names. I have a whole section on my website that talks about the names I gave my characters:

    Having said that, my big pet peeve is fantasy characters whose names are completely unpronounceable or don’t make sense. The ones that are celtic messes or have enough apostophes to freckle a leopard. it’s a cliche. I’m not saying you have to name your fantasy characters bob and susan, but there has to be a middle ground somewhere.

  9. A.R.Yngve on #

    I never forget what Harvey Kurtzman wrote about character names in MAD Magazine.. it went something like this:

    “In the Western moviews and TV shows, the hero always has a name like LANCE STERLING! You never met or heard about a guy with a name like that!

    “While in the real world, the 100% genuine cowboy might have a name like… John Smurd, maybe… a guy named Lance Sterling would’ve been hanged!

    “Mainly people have names like Charlie Siedenham… Iggy Freebie… Melvin Poznofsky! But could you imagine a Western hero named Melvin Poznofsky? So Lance Sterling it is.”

    Kurtzman exaggerated, but not by much. How come the American movie hero is so often named “Jack”?

    I tend to get neurotic about character names… I try out different varieties and change them several times… I look for interesting surnames everywhere… I even think the name of the author’s nom de plume is important.

    Legend has it that in an early draft of GONE WITH THE WIND, the principal character was named Pansy O’Hara.

    Try that name. Pansy… O’Hara. Ouch!

  10. marrije on #

    i’m in the ‘lazy naming’ camp. i’m also very lazy when reading, it seems: the first-letter business you cite for unpronounceable names? i also have that if they are called jack, john and james. i also have robert/patrick confusions. i’m always happy when there’s someone with a wooden leg or an eyepatch, so i can keep the lot apart…

  11. claire on #

    i use whatever springs to mind for short stories, then go back and change them if i want to make a different point. on da nobble i used whatever sprang to mind and then had to do a lot of changing later, since too many characters sounded the same.

    i had a “village” with four families so i ended up making sure each family surname started with a different letter and then made sure that the surname initial was a prominent letter in the first name of each family member (tho’ not necessarily the first letter.) again, i just established the principle and then thought up names, with the exception of the danish family, for whom i went on the internet.

  12. jeff on #

    at the risk of self-promotion, i wrote a little software application that generates names based on us census bureau data – none of the names are real, but they frequently sound real. it’s a bit of a creativity cop-out, but sometimes i can find inspiration in a name. check it out here…

  13. Diana on #

    i also realized in the writing of this book that I made several main characters have names that start with a j-sound — not necessarily a j, but a j-sound. oops. too late to change it now. also,I have characters with rhyming names. again, too late to change, the first book is out. Still i can turn it into a thing. i guess…

  14. Rajan K on #

    I am lazy, too. I usually grab for one thinking it’s a placeholder and then it just stays. Usually when I change it later, it doesn’t work as well.

    Main exceptions are a certain group of characters (in different stories) who all have roughly anagramatic (is that a word?) names.

  15. Tim Pratt on #

    For most names i use the random name generator:

    And just keep reloading until I find something I like, mixing and matching first names and surnames at will.

    For names of monsters, aliens, etc. I tend to dig down in various mythology/folklore dictionaries and willfully misspell things.

  16. Jennifer on #

    I pretty much do what you do, Justine. Usually I look around at whatever’s in the room (frequently, DVD’s) and pick a name from one of those.

  17. Sarah on #

    I have a list of favorite names that i had my friends make, listed in alphabetical order. This way, i have a large variety from multiple cultures as well as a few plain-Jane ones.

  18. Ruth on #

    Marrije, I was delighted to hear about your Robert / Patrick confusion. I have a Michael / Richard issue… I don’t know why. But they seem to be filed in the same drawer in my head, and I ALWAYS get them mixed up.

  19. Rebecca on #

    whatever sounds right. i usually search for something that sounds good, but i have a pretty steadfast rule- once a character is named, the name stays. i break that rule with minor characters, every now and then with in-between characters, and almost never with main characters. once someone’s named, the name becomes the identity, and i can’t think of the character in any other way.not without some serious grief, anyway. i recently changed a main villain’s name from anhelo (made up name) to elijah, but i’m still writing anhelo for everything. find and replace is useful. i just can’t get used to calling characters anything other than their original names, no matter how weird they are.

  20. marrije on #

    ruth: yes, michael and richard are definitely in the same ballpark! though they don’t sound all that much alike, if you read over them quickly they sort of look the same. or alike enough that i can’t see the difference when reading to speed: they just disappear into the page. like ‘he said/she said’. Maybe it’s something about the same visual word pattern, the ascenders and descenders? i don’t think it’s dyslexia, since in general i don’t have the letter confusion problem at all, it’s just names. interesting!

  21. liset on #

    i’m totally with ya in the same letter names!!!
    when i had to read smelly shakepeare in school i was so confused… sad

  22. dylan on #

    i know this is a little late…but i have such a huge problem with names. And places…it’s amazing i have any time to write LOL:)

  23. Darice Moore on #

    I copyedit, and often I must copyedit bibliographies. I hate bibliographies. But they have a redeeming quality, to wit: they have bunches of names, often names I’ve never heard of. I have been known to copy names from said bibliographies. Also, I’ve copied down names from authors’ typing mistakes, when they made something namelike.

    But I’ve also used the “what’s on the shelves near me?” gambit, and the baby name book gambit. But I’m a name geek. I like names, and I tend to think of finding a character’s name as part of the “character definition” process.

    Online, one of my favorite sources is the Medieval Names Archive — even if I’m not doing historical writing. There are some fantastic names in there.

  24. Little Willow on #

    I am so picky. I can’t have a name that makes me think of someone I know or have known.

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