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Okay, here's what I want: I want a check list or step by step list I can use while trying to name my characters. I often have trouble coming up with original names, especially last names, and this would really help me.

Please note that this is different from the "Choosing a character name is a constant difficulty" question as I am looking for strategies to come up with names (a creativity problem), while that question is about why certain names sound weird.

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Here's a list of various techniques I use when it comes to naming characters:

The lazy approach

Pick the first good name that comes into your head. Simple. I do this for a lot of minor or one-shot characters, where it's not worth going into much detail trying to think of a better name (something @heather already touched upon).

I wouldn't recommend using this approach for important characters, or for characters from foreign countries; unless you have a decent knowledge of names from that country, you'll likely end up with something like "Luigi Ferrari", which sounds stereotyped and silly.

The "write who you know" approach

Use the first name or surname of someone you know. Maybe you went to school with them, or you work with them, or you've met them online somewhere. I've used my late grandmother's maiden name for a couple of my characters. I wouldn't recommend using their full name, for privacy reasons.

The dictionary approach

This is the approach I usually use for naming foreign characters. Googling "[country] [gender] first names" and "[country] surnames" will return dozens of websites full of relevant names, and you can pick whichever names you like best. Remember that names work differently in certain cultures: for example, Slavic surnames are often patronymic (the son of someone named "Ivan" will be "Ivanov" or "Ivanovic"), and also often gendered (a female would be "Ivanova" instead of "Ivanov").

The "meaningful" approach

Similar to the dictionary approach, except you look for a name with a meaning specific to the character you're writing. If your character is a pure, innocent ingenue, look for a name that means "purity" or "innocence". If your character is a tough fighter, look for a name that means "warrior". If your character is posh, look for surnames of rich or noble families, and give them a couple of posh-sounding middle names.

You can also use Biblical or historical names with certain connotations, such as "Nero" for a man with fire powers (after the emperor who supposedly 'fiddled while Rome burned'), or "David" for a plucky man who battles the odds. Try not to be too egregious about it though: if I come across a character called Lazarus, and he dies and comes back to life, that's enough to affect my suspension of disbelief, especially if nobody in-story comments on the sheer unlikeliness of that happening.

Alternately, think of a name that might be meaningful to the characters' parents. One of my characters is named Sapphire, after her mother's favourite gemstone.

The "themed" approach

I don't personally use this often, but for some stories, you could think about giving characters names based on a common theme. RWBY uses colours, and the names of mythical or fairy-tale characters; James Bond and its numerous homages/parodies tend to give female characters innuendo-laden names; Steven Universe uses gemstones; Finding Nemo uses nautical names (Nemo, Marlin, Gill); and so on and so forth. Some of the more common themes (such as colours and vehicles) have their own TV Tropes pages, which I'll link later.

The RNG approach

Finally, for the names of fantasy characters, there are all kinds of random name generators available for free on the Internet. A few people have linked some already but you can find plenty of others by just searching "fantasy name generator". Try a few, keep rolling until you get a name you like, and then maybe tweak it a little yourself until it's perfect for your character and world.

  • +1 Very thorough answer. I'd just like to point out that the meaningful approach can be obvious or not: if you want a female name that means 'victory', you can go with the obvious Victoria or with the less obvious Eunice (Gr good victory). – Sara Costa Mar 15 '17 at 14:16
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How you name your characters is dependent on a number of things and there are a number of strategies available.

First off though, you need to consider the following:

  • What Genre your story is in
  • Where your story is set / Where your characters are from
  • When your story is set / When are your characters from

Genre is important. Naming conventions vary greatly between genres. Fiction, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance all have vastly different conventions and 'accepted' styles.

Fiction, Romance and other 'modern day' settings are best suited to keeping as close to current trends as possible. Depending on the dominant culture your naming convention should follow suit. I.e. an Anglicised or "western" culture will predominately have anglicised names (John, Marc, Luke, Matthew, Grace etc). Baby name lists, telephone books etc are all good resources to use for naming your characters.

Fantasy and Sci-Fi allow more esoteric naming conventions, or more descriptive depending on the setting and the time setting. Characters from a Victorian period will have different names to those in the Roman Empire or Middle Ages.

Surnames were often dependent on lineage or profession as well, and over time have evolved into what we see today. E.g. Ericson was initially Son of Eric. Cooper refers to the profession (as does Smith or Baker).

Again, look at what culture influences your characters/story. Roman names are very different to Nordic names. Research prominent historical figures, or other literature - Shakespeare is a great resource because his works cover a wide range of settings.

Mythology, histories, plays and sagas, Random name generators, baby name generators, census data etc are all good resources to give you an idea.

There are a number of sites that can give you a headstart:

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Personally, as a reader, I'm not great fan of authors trying to match the name to the character's personality traits. It often feels very force fed and well, immersion breaking if used too much. One starts to think "the parents named this Feisty McFeist when s/he was few hours/days/weeks old, or even before s/he was born. They had zero idea if s/he would be feisty or not". Nicknames are different thing, those quite often do describe personality or what the character (or person) likes.

Personality or occupation related names do work if you write about society where "real name" is something adults get when they have proven themselves and their character has been examined.

In society where parents name the babies, don't think about the character, think about the family and parents. What kind of people the parents are? Old hippies? Pretentious? Upstarters or old, well-to-do family? Warriors? Workers? What kind of hopes they have about the child? Is the child to be the great warrior to lead the village to freedom? Next in line to inherit the family business? What do the parents value? Kindness, grace, power? This also offers you angle: does the character end up matching their name, if there was some meaning to it.

If your setup is in real world, think when your character was born. Different names were in use in the fifties than nineties. As somebody mentioned, one can often find lists of popular names during different time periods.

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  1. Think about the traits of your character. If your character is "on the edge", give them an interesting, different name. If your character is kind of nerdy, give them a nerdy style name like Alexander, or something. You can also mish-mash these - if your character is being tugged between what they want to do, and what their parents want, give them a name their parents would want and give them that, but also give them a nickname they go by (perhaps). If you've ever heard a person say that another is definitely "a Sally" or "a Joe" you know what I mean.
  2. Think about the culture of your character. Maybe they're Irish. So give them an Irish last name, or first name, or both. Consider whether they'd be from a culture where they're last names are related to their Dad's, or their parent's. Consider how common middle names are in their culture.
  3. If all is lost, use a random name generator or simply names you like. Names can be deeply significant, but that may not always be a good thing. You could also keep a journal of funky, interesting, or new names, or combinations of names. For example, one of the authors of the writing guide Spilling Ink says she came up with the name for one of her characters (Olivia Kidney, an impressively uncommon name, to be sure) from a list of addresses for envelopes she had to fill out as a secretary.

Also, you shouldn't consider this process to be a checklist. Writing is a creative exercise for a reason. And finally: don't assign depth to a name where there is none. Thinking for hours and hours and hours about a name for a character that gets introduced for one small scene is probably not a great idea (unless that's the sort of thing you like, in which case, carry on).

Hope this helps!

  • Thanks, this helps so much. I had never thought of #2 before. – BlippThePanda Mar 14 '17 at 2:37
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    @BlippThePanda: To extend on the point, consider cultures where the family name comes first (China, Japan). Or where it is common to have two last names. Where adolescents are given a new name upon "coming of age" (or upon making some achievement), which might be tied to their character or talents... – DevSolar Mar 14 '17 at 9:01
  • I've noticed a top playwright giving names in alphabetical order of appearance (A, B, C, D ...). – BSalita Mar 14 '17 at 9:42
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An interesting idea that no one has suggested yet is to simply break down normal nouns into more name like ones. For example, create a name that is associated with the character - if a character's primary trait is strength, why not name them Luft? (Similar to the word lift), if a character can use some kind of wind magic, or if they love flying - why not Flyte?

Simply take a word related to the character - and modify it to be name like, and you can generate tons of names that the audience can easily remember.

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    You name your character Luft and you will have people thinking they have something to do with air or flying (it's the German word for air), not lifting or strength. Modifying a word to be "name like" is not an easy task. In a foreign language, many people cannot even recognize what's a name and what's not, let alone create something that would be instantly recognized as a name. That said, Douglas Adams got away with Ford Prefect and Slartibartfast. – oerkelens Mar 14 '17 at 13:29
  • @oerkelens +1 for the character named Luft Hansa. :-) – Lew Mar 14 '17 at 15:47
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I beleve JK. Rowling (of Harry Potter) went to a local Graveyard (Greyfriars cemetery), to get inspiration for the names.

http://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/voldemort-draws-harry-potter-fans-to-greyfriars-1-3067986

http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2015-09-17/did-you-spot-all-these-hidden-references-in-jk-rowlings-harry-potter-names

You could also get inspiration from your highschool yearbook or a phonebook. Maybe shift first and lastnames one line, to keep a little privacy for your peers.

And there are deffinitely some clichee names, like (for example) "Kevin" for the complicated Child.

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Methods I've heard on Writing Excuses:

-- Phone Book, just read names till you find one you like. Advantage: Many names for your area of the world

-- Twitter/Facebook/etc, Just read names until you find one you like. Advantage: when you don't want themed names

-- Anagram Things Around You: If you are surrounded by random objects, this can be a way to find "interesting" names that don't have a root in language

-- Pick a region or country in the world, break down the city names into common patterns. IE, ends in a vowel, starts with a hard consonant, normal number of syllables. Construct new words that follow these rules and pick the ones that sound like names to you. If you source your environment and setting from this region this can give you a strong "culture".

-- Common Baby name books (yes, there are just books full of popular names)

  • "Twitter/Facebook/etc, Just read names until you find one you like." - caveat: Many people put bogus names or nicknames there, so make sure to check the "exotic foreign name" you just found is an actual name. – O. R. Mapper Mar 21 '17 at 5:39
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I like to use http://www.behindthename.com/ for helping to come up with the names of characters, but I'll caveat this with mentioning that putting too much meaning into a character's name can be offsetting and implausible. The best way to pull that off is to have it be something subtle, ideally something that even someone who knew what the name means isn't likely to really get why the character had that name until after they've finished reading the story.

Some people will tell you that your characters' names don't matter much as long as they are well-written, because it's not as though in real life parents name their kids after things that happen in their life. To a certain extent, they have a point, but I would like to disagree. I think that a character's name can be important.

As a writer, you are attempting to evoke certain emotions in your reader, and reveal to them attributes of your characters. For better or worse, names will evoke certain connotations, emotions, and prejudices in your readers. It's true even in real life that a person's name will cause some people - possibly many - to make assumptions, likely subconscious, about their personality. This may not be Fair, but it's true that people do this.

Here is a blog post about a study that was performed, showing that participants in the study tended to have similar common assumptions about names. Now I'll stress that this is descriptive, not prescriptive, and that the actual facts of the life of a person named whatever do not necessarily match up.

But the point I'm trying to make is that people do make assumptions about someone based on their name, and the same is true for your characters. And since you are a writer, you ought to be aware of that. This is actually a boon to you, however, because it gives you another tool! Not only could you take the 'lazy' route by researching common perceptions of names to make a character's connotation line up with their personality, but perhaps more interestingly you could completely subvert the expectations of the reader. I wouldn't rely on the name alone for this, but I might choose a name with certain connotations, set up characterization that makes them seem to fit said connotations, and then subvert it in a reveal explaining their actions in a different light. (A la Mr.Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.)

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Think about the people who named them and why they might choose the name. Perhaps their mother loved flowers, so she names her daughter "Lily," or her son "William." Perhaps your character was found abandoned on the intersection of Jacob St. and Holiday Ave. and is thus named Jacob Holiday. A father who favors elegent, old names might name his children Edmond, or Sarah. A fan of a book series might name their child after the author or a character.

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If you're writing in some manner of word-processing software, you can DEFER the decision while writing. So feel free to use a placeholder name while you figure it out.

When I'm unsure of the final name, I choose a short, unique name {OK, text string) while I'm figuring it out. Find/replace all is already built into decent text editors, so why not use that to help you write?

For example, I have a young, female dragon character. Right now, she's simply @gd (girl dragon), until I choose her name. Quick to type, sufficiently unique that global replacement won't cause mistakes. Since she's spoiled/privileged (and blissfully unaware if it, until she does something almost-fatally stupid), I'll want a name that implies wealth/rank/exclusive-sorority, etc. to readers -- but not as obvious as 'Richy Rich,' 'Daddy Warbucks,' or Ivanka. (Is Althea too over the top, I wonder? For a queen-bee type?)

  • Note that this only works smoothly in languages that do not inflect names. – O. R. Mapper Mar 21 '17 at 5:41

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