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Writing: Characters and Dialogue

How do you come up with good character names?


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Answered 2016-12-23 12:13:05

You can come up with good character names in an assortment of ways.

You can use a name generating website (click on Add Related Links to the left),You can use a baby name book,You can use old census records,You can use a phone book,you can use a school yearbook,You can use the credits list of any movie or television show,You can use a newspaper or journal - some writers swear by British tabloids,You can use a word in another language which has a meaning relevant to your character,You can use any word you like for a name (For example there are actual people named Stone. Tequila, Locutus, London, Mary Christmas, Maryetta Pancake, Iamme Perfect and Texas sisters Ura Hogg and Imma Hogg!), and,You can make up a name that sounds good to you. One way is to write a song lyric out without spaces (ohsaycanyousee, for example) and pick out interesting or unusual letter combinations (Sayca, Cany, etc.)

Famous Authors' Suggestions:

"I'm always in the lookout for clever character names. I harvest them from theater programs, maps, telephone books, TV listings. But my newest resource comes right out of the internet age. It costs nothing if you have access to the Web. In fact, those names arrive by the bucketful every day in your e-mail in-box. That's right! It's spam! Or rather, spammers, those falsely named 'senders' who are constantly flogging mortgages and Russian brides and male enhancement products. The names are usually too eccentric for your hero or heroine, but they're great for secondary characters, proving that spam is actually good for something. "

~Linda Needham

"I think the naming of characters is one of the most important elements in storytelling. If you start with the belief that your story lives or dies with character, then you begin to see how important a name could be. I believe it is important that the writer never misses an opportunity to say something about character. A name is a good starting point. "

~Michael Connelly

When inventing character names, Evan Marshall recommends you keep these questions in mind:

  • Does the character's background suggest any names or types of names?
  • Would the character's parents have been likely to choose a certain name or kind of name?
  • What names were in fashion when the character was born?
  • Would a nickname or less formal version of a name be appropriate for this person?

"It took us forever to name our mystery series character. Thank goodness for the global find-and-replace feature in Word. Finally, we settled on Peter for a first name because it's masculine but not macho. For the last name we wanted something short, strong, and easy to remember. We settled on Zak. We might have chosen differently if we'd realized that the name would have to be modified in the Dutch translations. In Dutch, both 'Peter' and "Zak' are swear words - I believe for the same unmentionable. "

~Hallie Ephron, half of G.H. Ephron

"For many of my books, I give the protagonists names I always wished my parents had given me. [...] I named the secondary characters after people I had sat beside in elementary school."

~Sarah Mlynowski

"It's very popular in the African-American culture for new moms to make up their own names based on an existing name - 'updating them' with a new rhythm, usually by adding sounds to the beginning or the end. For example, in 'A Personal Matter' I created several young black women who had made-up names like Diamonique, T'keysa, and Nalexi. "

~Karyn Langhorne

More ideas and tips from WikiAnswers Contributors:

Try to make sure that first and last names start with different letters - remember all those characters in the Superman comics whose initials were all L.L. ?Vary the sound and length of the character's first and last names - if they have a short first name, try using a longer last name, or vice versa.Try to avoid having all the character names coming from one ethnic background, or sounding alike, or beginning or ending in similar ways.Try to avoid overly long first names for your main characters.Check via search engines (e.g., Google) to be sure that none of the names you picked have any unusual problems (e.g., see paragraph below).

Any list of names can help you come up with a character name. There is only one thing to remember: never use the name of anybody who is even slightly famous! If you use an actual person's name, like Kanye West, then he can sue you for writing about him. If you simply adore the name Kanye, be sure that your character has a totally different middle and last name so that the real Kanye can't claim you are slandering him.

When using a list of names, it's a good idea to use only one of the names given, especially if the name is unusual. That way, there's almost no chance that you will hear from an actual person complaining that you've written something bad about them.

Some tips on names from different fiction genres:

Stories set in the modern era(s) -

use more modern sounding namesstick to more modern name lists such as a phone book or baby name bookkeep the stereotypes in mind; most modern names have a mental image that goes along with them, such as the idea of a man named Dick versus a man named Rick

Stories set in the past -

use older names or historical namesuse older lists of names, or use a fantasy name generatorkeep the location in mind; older names are not going to cross ethnic boundaries the way modern names do. You're not going to find a Viking named Alonzo or a Bedouin named Daisy

Fantasy tales -

make up your own languageuse older names or historical nameschoose an ethnic base for your names, such as Norse for one area and Arabic for anothercombine different ethnic flavors to create unique names

Science Fiction tales -

make up your own languageuse any name that you wish - your planet might have a background which would make the citizens use historical or fantasy type names, or it might be a more modern planetchoose an ethnic base for your names if the planet was colonized by people from Earthmake your alien names descriptive - short, harsh names for bad aliens, for example; or melodic names for good aliens

Names are so important when it comes to creating a character. The sound of the name can reflect what kind of personality the character has, or hint at your plans for the character's future. For example:

Do you want them to have a really pretentious name? Go with an old European name - especially one of the little-used English ones like Leslie for a guy or Phillipa for a girl.Do you want the name to flow and sound calm? Listen to the syllables and get a rhythm going. Sharon Elizabeth might be good for a girl, or John Michael for a guy.Do you want the name to be short and choppy? Try a nickname or an Oriental name.Do you want the name to sound silly? Go with rhyming names, or alliteration, or really mixed-up ethnic names like Joshua Ching Sanchez.Do you want an exotic character? Look up some names from exotic cultures or little-known countries.Do you want your character to be marked for greatness? Try giving them a "hero" name like Arthur, or a name that means "kingly" or "great." You could give them a nickname that hints at greatness - Jim Butcher's Furies series has a character named Tavi, who you learn is actually nicknamed that from his true name Octavian (he's the eighth generation of rulers and has been hidden away as a child to save his life).

There are many ways to come up with good character names. Here are some places where you can find lists of names:

  • a baby name book
  • a telephone book
  • the credits list on any movie or tv show
  • the obituary column in a newspaper
  • a company directory
  • a magazine or newspaper - they have pages listing their contributors
  • a charity list of donors
  • the internet - use a search engine to look up "names"
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