Naming Names

How do you choose a name for a character?  Some of my characters’ names came from deceased relatives, old family friends, and a particularly useful website:  Since names fall in and out of popularity throughout the years, one way to name your character realistically is to see what names were popular for the year in which they were born. That’s what this website can tell you –the most common names given to the children of that age.

For choosing surnames, I carefully watched film and TV show credits, paid attention to the last names of athletes, people in the news and even place names. Detective Jack Staley, for example, arose from – Jack: a consistently strong male name (think Jack Kennedy, Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher, Jack Bauer) and Staley which I borrowed from former Philadelphia Eagles’ running back Duce Staley. (Also giving it a Philly connection). Maya Kaminsky is a combination of – Maya: Russian engineer from Kim Stanley Robinson’s book, “Red Mars” and Kaminsky: the last name of one of my childhood friends.

How do you feel about graveyards? They are another excellent source of names. Go have a wander in the local cemetery – the older, the better. Finally, to make sure you aren’t using the name of someone already ‘famous,’ google the name you’ve chosen to see what comes up. Although, the name might not belong to a celebrity, it could be the name of a business leader or politician that is well known in their field. You may want to think twice about using it, especially if it is the name of your villain!

Another caution: don’t have too many names that look or sound similarly. For instance, naming Maya’s sister Mary, or having a Jack and a Jake in the same story. They will easily be confused and that is frustrating for the reader.

May your characters be unique, their names be memorable and your book a best seller!

46 thoughts on “Naming Names

      1. Oh yes, they’re uber cool. StLouis Cemetery #2 is definitely one to check out. Marie Laveau is entured there. People still come to her tomb and leave offerings. Savannah has some of the prettiest cemeteries I’ve ever wandered. Biloxi and Mobile too. I’m just so South-centric. I probably sound like a broken record. 😏

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      2. Not at all! There are some pretty old Colonial era cemeteries in our area. Bucks is one of the oldest counties in the country. Sandra has mentioned the ones up in Boston, too. I guess anywhere here in the east has the more historical sites. And it doesn’t even feel all that old compared to the graveyards of Europe.

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      3. Yeah, that’s very true. When I was in Paris, we had to see Jim Morrisons grave. It was great, but there were a hundred people around it. I looked, snapped a pic, then left the hoard and roamed the rest. It was unreal!

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      4. I didn’t know Wilde was there. I couldn’t even really get a good pic when I visited. It had spray paint all over it though. Messages. The crowd was just thick that day. I thoroughly enjoyed meandering around instead. I’ve always thought going down into the catacombs would be killer too! 😃

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  1. I think that the cemetery one is a great idea. It’s common for names to fall out of favor and are somewhat forgotten, and a cemetery would be ideal for finding, or re-discovering those names.

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  2. I find it frustrating when a name’s pronunciation isn’t obvious. My brain will stumble over it every time it appears. It’s usually last names, but first names like Joaquin or Siobhan gave me fits when I was young, until I learned how they were pronounced.

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      1. Yes! Although I read a book recently where a character was named Ralph and it was explained that he pronounced it “Rafe” like Ralph Fiennes. Ok – thanks for the explanation, but whyyyyyy???? haha!
        Kind of like Geoff. I have a hard time not pronouncing it Gee-off in my head whenever I see it.

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  3. I’ve collected names my whole life (a writer since forever). As you mention also, they can come from TV, movies, people we know, etc. In the last decade, I’ve used the Internet to look up names and name meanings. I may have used Behind the Name, but if not, thanks for passing that on.

    In my novel’s acknowledgements at the end, my final line reads, “A special thank you to Bret … whose name was stolen!”

    “May your characters be unique, their names be memorable and your book a best seller!” — This should be adopted at book events after presentations and author readings, and as a toast.

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    1. Eva, I just pulled your comment from spam! And I’m so sorry I didn’t find it sooner. I have a list of potential first and last names that I pull from now as well. I’m happy you enjoyed my closing remarks! Thank you!

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  4. I struggle with this to some extent. I’ve used all of the suggestions you mentioned. you already know how I love cemeteries. I’ve been wandering those since I could drive myself to them. But for some reason… I have such a hard time choosing character names. I don’t know if I mentioned this to you before… but for every story I’ve written for as long as I can remember, the male lead starts out with the same name. Sometimes I don’t change it until I’m finished. And I’ve never shared a story with that name still in it… it’s like I’m saving it for myself or something. I have a major attachment to it. I’m weird!!

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  5. My wife and I used to live a area of the city known as East York. Toronto used to known as York. And I have this book called “Cabbagetown”. At the turn of 19th-20th centuries cabbages were eaten by many as they were the cheapest source of food. Well the book is chock full of old street names, and tells you who owned what, and where it was. Books on your city or town can be just as good as a trip through a cemetary. Plus they can of great help if cemetaries creep you out – and they creep me out. I came far too close to being a permanent resident in one far too soon.

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    1. That sounds like a great resource for names! I live outside Philadelphia so the history is rich. I’ve used place names from around the area for last names. Half the fun of writing for me is the research!

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