The name’s the thing

I know there are authors who come up with a character name, then fill out a character sheet like they’re doing a D&D game, and proceed from there unto the plot and story. I am not one of those people.

I know there are authors who put tons of research into their names, and crafting them carefully to match the world.

I know there are authors who have multiple baby-naming books or sites, and cruise through them until they get something that matches the character already in their heads.

Me? I often end up using placeholder names, of something that caught my eye, until I finally figure out (you know, about 25,000 words in) what the character’s actual name is. And then comes the find & replace joy. (Fun fact. Find and replace treats Seth, Seth’s, Seths & Seth’ as 4 separate words, and will only replace one at a time. So make sure you look for potential misspellings and possessive cases. And plurals. Or your (hopefully beta) readers will go “Who’s this?”)

How do you handle names? What resources do you use?


  1. “Find and replace treats Seth, Seth’s, Seths & Seth’ as 4 separate words, and will only replace one at a time.”

    In my editor, that means I forgot to untick “Whole Words” (conveniently adjacent to the search box). You probably have a similar setting turned on somewhere.

      1. The problem with using Seth* in a find-and-replace is that it will replace the entire thing found with the replacement string – so “I like Seth’s cat” could turn into “I like Bob cat”.

        1. The lovely thing about my everyday editor is I can see ALL the search results at once (for one or multiple files) …. and can click down the list and replace each at my pleasure. This function in RoughDraft is what stole me away from WordPerfect.

          [hat type=”editor” style=”nitpicky”]
          One big problem with doing a global S&R on names is that the change often alters the rhythm of the prose around it — meaning it’ll go *clank* against the reader’s ear. You don’t write the same words around “Jubalishus” as you do around “Jim”, whether you notice or not. So I’d strongly advise doing a manual pass to adjust this as may be required, then use eye-checked automation to catch what the manual pass missed. Particularly true if other characters refer to the victim with a title or nickname.

          Also can alert you to when you’re over-using the POV character’s name, which tends to distance the reader.

    1. And imagine the work necessary before the age of word-processors. Merritt’s Moon Pool was originally written and appeared in magazine, during the First World War, with a German villain. By the time it came to publish the hardcover, the war was over and the publisher wanted a Russian villain. Merritt objected, but he who has the gold makes the rule. The story goes that Merritt went through and changed every occurrence of the villain’s name but one. The story does not say whether the ‘oversight’ was caught before or after the book was set in type.

  2. To the nominal topic…. I’ve done names all sorts of ways.

    — made noises til something stuck.
    — warped a real name until it stuck.
    — grabbed a name off a freeway exit.
    — recycled dog names.
    — stole 1950s kennel names.
    — scrabbled a pinch of alphabet macaroni.
    — dumped two names/words together and chopped out letters or syllables.
    — warped an existing character name, since my nonhumans do family themes.
    — concatenated the first letters off a column of words, because it looked cool.
    — typed out the next random noise that came into my head.

    Major/recurring characters seem to get names right off. Throwaway characters, tho… my brain resists naming them at all, even when they need it. Someday I need to make a pool of names for those folks.

    1. — grabbed a name off a freeway exit.

      I’m convinced that “Amedala” is from a freeway sign for “Alameda.”

  3. i used to look through these books that you used to be able to get that had the names of all the people in a city, alphabetically. Flip thru pages and find a last name you like… flip thru pages for a first name to go with it…

    1. For US surnames, this is a pretty good place to start:

      For human names, I largely head off to Wikipedia – one place where they are actually useful. Many good articles on their etymology, too (such as the Thai law that prohibits using a surname already in use unless you can prove a relationship to that family).

      Alien names… well, I have to start at the beginning, with the physiology of their speech production organs (and whether, and how much, and what, are their non-verbal communication abilities).

      1. Please do not use apostrophes. I read “R’ad” as “Rad”, anyway, so it’s wasted on me. How does one pronounce it, anyway? One must inject some sound before or after the “R”. It’s not pronounceable without a vowel. If you want an injected sound, write it (e.g. Rahad).

        I also recommend avoiding clicks, buzzes, and whistles. While it is entirely plausible that a language would contain such things, they don’t write well in a reader-understandable character set. I have yet to see a musical staff used for alien words (thank goodness), but that’s also entirely plausible.

        My cat meows in Russian. He says “Мзръ”, which is not easily pronounceable in English. Try saying “Mer” with emphasis on the “r” and just stopping without adding another sound. I call him “Merp”.

        1. Well… I started out with a race that still has a vestigial beak. Named them T’Kar. Now, you are perfectly privileged to call them the Tikar, or the Takar, or the Tekar (although I will think you somewhat odd if you use Tokar).

          I did consider renaming them (and most of the character names, as well) when I read another MGC article (IIRC, it was one of Sarah’s, but that was a while ago).

          Then I decided to drop the notion. The names are the names. If I have too many complaints about them, I still won’t change them – I’ll just go full David Weber on my readers and write a book with all Czech characters…

  4. I steal a lot of them from other writers, often minor characters in novels. (You’ll find a lot of Philip Dick characters slumming in my stories.)

    Also the sort of world I am writing will influence what names I take. For Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts I used a naming convention that the wealthy tended to have names of British origin, while the lower classes had slavic names–I don’t ever spell that out anywhere, but I think that it comes across and gives the reader a kind of first impression of characters when they are introduced.

    And many of my names are in-jokes. My favorite of these is Corbett “Cobb” Russwin from The Book Of Lost Doors–he’s named after the lock hardware manufacturer Corbin-Russwin.

  5. I’ve borrowed names from history (Tycho, Rudolph), politicians (Joschka [which also nods to the history of the Habsburg Empire]), Biblical (Rada, Rachel, Matthew, Ebenezer Solomon), co-workers (Rahoul, Lelia). I’ve also gone to baby-name and other places, looked up historical names for a culture (the Merchant books) and modified them.

    I generally start with some idea, then decide what the naming rules are for the culture in question, and go from there. (F. X. Chieu’s family are Catholic refugees who fled from China in 1949. So the kids are all going to have good Catholic names, like Francis Xavier, Catherine, and so on.) Some characters just march up and thump me, fully named. Others need a bit to settle in. Rigi was Rigi from the start, as was Kor. And Kor being Kor, I had no idea that he was actually first Stamm or that he had an identical twin.

  6. A variety of methods – my fave is to look at the US census for various decades, especially for surnames. Sometimes for given names, although I often pick something from the Bible or Shakespeare.
    For the Adelsverein series, I also checked the ship lists, and the Gillespie County census, for extra-special authenticity.

  7. So far, the names have simply popped into my head for main characters. Some of the minor ones I’ve used names I like and would have used for the kids I never had. I have used the fantasy name generator to get ideas and then tweaked from there.

  8. I crib heavily from Greek and Roman gods, Norse gods, all that mythology stuff. Then I chop and channel names from people I know, television, whatever. Usually the character is shouting their name at me, figuratively speaking. They come with it.

    This is less convenient than it sounds, sometimes. ~:D

  9. My main rule for making up names is to create ones that sound distinctive and can actually be pronounced. For choosing them, I find lists of names and their origins and meanings to be very handy.

  10. I’ll be boring and admit that I usually use Behind the Name. If I’m looking for a certain ethnicity, I’ll go to that page; otherwise, I’ll go to the year of their birth and start scrolling down the list of popular names until I find something that sounds right. One thing to beware of with this method is to consider starting on the second page of results if you’re looking for names from a particular country or with a particular meaning, or you’ll end up with too many A and B names.

    For novels set in fantastic worlds, I have a file containing interesting-sounding names for fantasy characters that I write down as they come to me. This does have the down side that, since I often have my computer open while I’m watching sports, many of my characters end up named after football players (although really, “Lamical” is a fabulous name for a villainous wizard; seems a shame to waste it on a running back).

    I do always have my characters named before I start. There are times when I need to change them (I’ve just realized that I have a Keith and a Kenneth in my latest story, and one of them is going to need to have a name change before I screw up completely), but in general, they won’t talk to me until they’re named.

    1. I disagree with the notion that you can’t have characters whose names start with the same letter. (Readers who can’t keep track of names won’t keep track anyway, and are not relevant to this peeve.) If your readers (absent the people-have-names?? contingent) can’t distinguish Keith from Kenneth, then your characters are insufficiently distinct, and blaming/changing the name may create an illusory distinction, but will not actually fix this.


      1. The problem comes from very close names, with the same syllables. Keith and Kenneth, if one is a major and one a minor character shouldn’t be much of a problem. André and Arthur are more of a problem. Kor and Tor? It was easier to shorten one to Kor and the other to Tortuh (vs. Korkuhkalia and Tortuhtalia. The joys of being high ranking, identical twins.)

      2. Think — dyslexics.

        Actually, the only two dyslexics I have personally heard from have said that for one it’s the first few letters, and for the other, the initial letter and the general shape of the word, but it’s not like they could fix it by working harder.

      3. Whole word readers. That abomination of a teaching style that should never have been inflicted upon the populace has left at least two generations of readers who have problems with names and other proper nouns or unfamiliar words that are similar.

        For those of who grew up with phonetics and sounding words out, the controversy and confusion between a small bloodsucking mite – chigger – and a racial slur is hilarious, stupid, and mildly perplexing on how people could possibly confuse the two. For whole-word-readers, the confusion centers on how anyone could not mistake the two.

        Since I am competing for beer money, the less I confuse people who may have a hard time with reading in the first place, the better.

    2. Make a list of letters and whenever you need a new name, pick one with low count.

      Otherwise, they can concentrate remarkably.

  11. Fun fact. Find and replace treats Seth, Seth’s, Seths & Seth’ as 4 separate words, and will only replace one at a time. So make sure you look for potential misspellings and possessive cases. And plurals. Or your (hopefully beta) readers will go “Who’s this?”

    So if I ever get authorial/writery, REGEX will be something I’ll REALLY need to learn to bypass that silliness. Got it.

  12. I once thought I had a “process.” Character naming is of the things that convinced me that I don’t.

    Character names come to me out of the ether. I’ll be noodling over some significant attribute I want a Marquee character to have, and suddenly the name is there. On occasion, the name has proved to be one of the more important things about the character. No joke!

    Some of the character names in my Spooner Federation SF trilogy startled me after the story was well along toward completion. The protagonist of the first volume, Which Art In Hope, is named Armand. The novel was two-thirds complete before it occurred to me to look up the origin of that name. It’s indirectly derived from homo, the Latin word for “man.” Before the end of the book, Armand becomes something rather distant from a man.

    I offhandedly named the central figure of my Realm of Essences trilogy Louis Redmond. Turns out that’s derived from medieval French for “warrior-king of the world.” That proved important.

    Without thinking, I named the critical character in Innocents Fountain. No last name. But that proved to be as characterizing as anything else about her, as readers of Experiences and The Wise and the Mad will know.

    Happy accidents, all of them…unless there’s a force of unknown properties at work. You could persuade me of that.

  13. Depends on the character. I have one major OC who I needed a solid name for, so I when I was looking at the meanings of Japanese names, I grabbed the one that matched the lyrics of the song I was using to define the character.

    I have a couple of Catholic characters, who will be named after thematically appropriate Saints.

    On another project, I first looked at Chinese color words, then filled out the balance with Japanese names that connoted color.

  14. I have a technique that works for me. Might not be available to most people. I have an 1966 issues of the Ham Radio DX (foreign) Call Book. I pick a culture that conforms with the book/story and then go to that country’s listing and scan the names. Some times a pick a surname, then a different given name.

    Works for me.

    1. A problem that might happen with this is in determining whether a name is female or male. The cues we use in most European cultures don’t apply elsewhere, so if the source doesn’t indicate feminine or masculine there’s a good chance to get it wrong.

  15. Sometimes they come with names, sometimes they don’t. I do parallel worlds with different histories, and different weird stuff, and try to stick to a theme for each world, so the Characters’ name are a clue to where they came from.

    It can be disastrous, as my back brain decided the one with the locked in weird names was where it wanted to play.

    1. Really? I hadn’t noticed 🙂 The witch naming convention could fairly be considered “weird”, too.

      “Okra” could fit both! Although the rest of the witches would have names like “asparagus”, “broccoli”, “cauliflower”, etc… That would just be mean to an entire generation (not that “Yttribite” is particularly nice; “Xenotine” seems to have worked out OK, though).

  16. They seldom come with names, but it can be easier or harder.

    Baby name books are useful tools. Particularly for minor characters. It’s nice to have a name that suggests character, social status, and society without being too ham-handed about it.

    Then I have to remember to convey all the baggage that the name has for me to the reader, who doesn’t have it. 0:)

    1. Then sometimes I fall in love with a name and use it in some stories about the same time. If more than one comes to fruition. . . .

  17. My favorites are, in no particular order, 20000-names dot com, behind the name (also has a nifty name generator), and a piece of old shareware called the Ever-changing Book of Names that I actually heard about on Writing Excuses.

  18. Usually I can think of a name I want to use for the character, or I make one up. Occasionally I have to do a search for a name — I had to do that with the commander to find the right name with some Viking lineage to it.

  19. It’s funny. Because you can’t change the name of your children, they seem to “grow up into” their names over time. With characters (for me, at least), it often works backwards. Sometimes they just have to say and do some stuff for a while, and then the right name grows up onto them.

    Really interesting topic.

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