resources · writing

Naming Your Darlings: A Guide to Character Names

teddy-bear

When I was young, names fascinated me. That interest did not translate into a talent for actually naming creatures. (After all, I called my first pet, a very adorable Teddy Bear Hamster, “Teddy”. Not a terribly inspired choice.) Despite my increases in age and, theoretically, wisdom, I have not improved my ability to name people, animals, or places, but as a writer, I am frequently faced with choosing appellations.

Though I sometimes pull names out of thin air, I often find myself asking several questions to decide what name is appropriate. These include things like:

  • When was the character born?
  • Where was the character born?
  • What was the character’s family like? Erudite? Of the Earth? Traditional? Revolutionary?
  • Does the family have strong ties to a particular place or religion?
  • What hopes did the family have for the character, and does the name reflect them?
  • Are there family names? (For example, is every first born son named after great-great-great-great grandfather Arthur? Does every child have a name that starts with the letter F?)
  • Is the character’s name a typical one for the time/place, or is it unusual?
  • Did the character choose his/her own name?

Sadly these questions are less helpful when naming places. Regardless they usually prevent me from naming a character born in 1920  a name that didn’t become popular until 1980. They also help me develop the character.

In addition to delving into a character’s background, I have found the following resources useful when choosing names. They include databases of names, census lists, and name generators. Because they have helped me, I want to share them with all of you as well.

If you have any other sites that you use for naming your darlings, please let me know! I’d love to see them.

Character Name Resources

First Names

Behind the Name – This site allows you to explore names by their language, meaning, and popularity. In fact, one of its most useful facets is its analysis of popular names around the world, so if you want to see a list of the top 100 names of babies born in the US between 1880 and 1889, you can do that. (The lists of names outside of the US are typically more recent with the exception of the list on male names in 1427 Florence, Italy.)

US Social Security: Top Names – If you want to find the top names of children born in a specific decade, this site provides complete lists back to 1880. For other countries, googling census records will often provide the necessary name lists.

Surnames

Behind the Name: Surnames – If you are looking for a character’s last name, this site is a wonderful resource. The database allows you to search names by description, origin, popularity, and a dozen other facets so that you can find just the right name for your character.

Fantasy Names*

Fantasy Name Generators – In addition to generating individual names, this lists names for places as well. (Which is wonderful because it is very stressful to have to name sixteen rivers, three mountain ranges, and twelve towns.)

Fantasy Name Gen – This is a very simple generator that also provides some interesting places names. After all, who doesn’t want to travel to Bleak Octopus Valley?

*I have to admit that some of the names in the fantasy generators make me cringe. Category options aren’t necessarily savvy to the concept of multiculturalism, so that is something to keep in mind if you use them.

 

Teddy wishes you the best of luck with naming your creations!

Teddy Bear Hamster.PNG

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52 thoughts on “Naming Your Darlings: A Guide to Character Names

  1. Haha! Children like to name things adorable names. My white hamster was named ‘Angel’ and I definitely had a pink teddy bear named ‘Cotton Candy’. :p Those are just fun and I love looking back on it as a symbol of my childhood. (Of course now I want to name pets something much more menacing or perhaps just after food. Still kind of want an orange cat to name Gingersnap. Haha!)

    But this is why I quite enjoy writing futuristic books because I don’t have to constrain myself to what was popular at the time. I can pick whatever names I want and make them a thing. Though, I do have a tendency to go for more classic names that were popular 100 years ago or, you know, follow the YA dystopian trend and just name them something really absurd, like a good or plant. Haha! ^.^

    I think the only time when I really put in effort for picking particular names is when I know the character’s heritage or it’s essential to the world building of the book. I know one story I’m working on has all the characters from a Scandinavian country. Therefore, all their names must be Scandinavian of some type. And sometimes I’ll pick names that mean particular thing to reflect their personalities, but for the most part, I’m pretty lax in the matter. :/ *is such a lazy writer*

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting post, Kristen. I grab the local newspaper to find names. Mostly last names, and then I find a suitable first name to fit the character’s age, background, social standing, etc. Yeah, it’s a good point to make sure those first names were in “vogue” when the character was born. Can’t have any Miss Madison Taylor Stillwater born in 1950! 🙂
    –Michael

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I completely overthink my names. I get all into it and analyze each name, and then finally, I said enough is enough and settled on names I thought fit the characters. Names are so important. When I read good ones like Atticus Finch, those names always stick with you.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is really helpful, thank you for sharing! I always find when ever I need to think up a name on the fly it always ends in a ‘-y’ so Lucy, Barry, Gary, Harry, Sally, Mary, Tommy… I could go on, but I won’t.

    It’s beginning to get a bit annoying, so thank you again for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I use the fantasy name generator quite a bit. Some names just come to me, other times I could sit for days and nothing. I’ve literally written scenes in which the character name is just a series of asterisks until I found something, lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fantasy settings somehow make everything easier and yet more difficult. After all, you can name people whatever you want in your new world! At the same time though, it’s nice to have some internal logic to it. I suppose that’s why Tolkien’s elvish names ended up featuring “l” and “w”so often.

      Liked by 3 people

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