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Tools for Naming Characters

"I'm having some trouble naming this character," I complained to The Husband recently.  "Help me."

"How about Trudy?"

Dead silence.

The art of naming characters is a touch more precise than throwing random ideas out there and POW! the first one sticks, isn't it?

Add in the complications of genre--was this name used in 1787? Does this sound fantasy-ish enough without being wacky? Will people still name kids Mary in the scifi world I've envisioned?--and it gets downright dizzying.

Fortunately, I love names.  And there are plenty of resources out there to help a struggling writer settle on the right name.

First, there are the baby-name websites.  You can browse to your heart's content without camping out in the same section of the bookstore as titles such as Screaming Newborns, Happy Families and Birthing Positions for the Modern Woman.  If you're lucky, your friends and family won't even notice, and you won't be stuck answering awkward questions about when your "blessed arrival" is due to show up.  ("Um, it'll be a few months, but then I'll still have lots of revision to do on it...")

Beyond this, one of my favorite name-help sites is  Instead of just browsing, hoping to hit on a winner, you can plug in inspiration names, and the site generates names with similar qualities.  Sometimes I think it's smarter than I am.  It probably is.

Names broken down by ethnic origin can be helpful, too.  You might notice a pattern in the names you like--for instance, many Irish names are vowel-heavy with soft consonants (ms and vs).  Many sites offer this, or you can search for the specific origin you're grooving on.

If old-fashioned--or surprisingly old yet fresh and unique--names are on your radar, try taking a walk.  In a cemetery.  Seriously.  Being surrounded by all those names can help open your mind.  Once you get over that whole "taking a walk in a cemetery" thing.

When you have ideas, throw them at friends to get reactions.  I recently asked my Twitter friends what they thought of the name "Vesta"--a personal favorite of mine, but would it work for my 17 year old character?  My fears were confirmed--Vesta made them think older person, not a young person. This isn't a be-all and end-all, but first impressions, in my view, matter.  I didn't want to have to overcome any preconceived views with this particular name.

After mulling over quite a few names, I'm testing out Anke for my hard-to-name character.  And that's the final tool in my arsenal--Microsoft Word's "replace" feature.  It's not hard at all to plug in a name and work with it for a while.  If it sticks, perfect!  But if not, it's not hard to replace with the next test name--or a real winner.

What tools do you use when naming characters?  Or do you stick with good old brainstorming?


  1. Ooo, I love researching names too. I like to use census records. And I do keep a list of every name I use when I'm writing a book because I tend to cluster names. In other words, I start giving everyone names that begin with the same letter. And the letter varies from book to book, so it's not like I'm stuck on one letter. Am I the only one who does this?


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