24

If I get hung up choosing a name for a character, should I come back to it later? Or should I try to figure one out? I feel like sometimes I have some momentum going forward and taking too much time to select a name stops said momentum.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Luke! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 9 '18 at 7:44
  • 2
    Not really an answer to your question, but the Everchanging Book of Names has been a very useful, easy-to-use resource for me. – Josh Part Mar 10 '18 at 1:20
  • I don't know if this counts as an answer, because it seems like you're looking for quick ways to generate meaningful names. I've always taken inspiration from cryptography: Alice, Bob, Carol, David, Eve. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Mar 10 '18 at 2:51
  • I find that unusual/uncommon names work really well (depending on your story though). Like I prefer names like Jade/Freya/Obadiah/Xavier to ones like Bob/Alice. Also, it helps to name your character around their character i.e if I have a time traveller,I would call him Decade. On top of this, I would then go on to cast him as a Christian coloured man because that's the sort of image you get from the name. – Adi219 Mar 10 '18 at 14:22
  • 1
    I'll just leave this here – forest Mar 12 '18 at 10:25

18 Answers 18

19

I always feel that names are a big problem for me and coming up with some meaningful names that sound pleasant is one of the hardest parts of writing for me. That's why I never stop to come up with a name.

Before starting to write I normally have a plan for the next few pages at least and I know which characters will come up and what they will basically be doing. Then I use one of their main character traits or characteristics to come up with a name by using Google Translator with different languages until something interesting comes up. You can read more about my technique in my answer to What are good resources to get fantasy names?. That way I have an interesting name that I can use and that is likely so unique that I can relatively easily replace it later if I find a better name.

"Search and Replace" of your word processing software is likely a big help in this, but you have to be careful. For example in German saying "Tims Antwort ist gut" ("Tim's answer is good") and replacing "Tim" with "Secespitus" would yield "Secespituss Antwort ist gut" - which is wrong, as it should say "Secespitus' Antwort ist gut".

Furthermore the name can be part of a bigger name, like "Tim" could be part of "Timothy" and if you only want to replace "Tim" with "Dean" you would end up with "Deanothy" - which might be an interesting name, but not your originally desired result. Especially when you have a lot of different characters you should be careful. And at the same time you should be careful that if you want "Tim" and "Timothy" to be the same person you would have to rewrite the parts where for example the longer name is used - it might be a rhetorical device, like an angry mother calling her child by its full name, and you might want to preserve this when changing the name.

You should only replace each instance individually and not all at the same time to not run into these problems.

If you are writing and suddenly you introduce a new character that you haven't thought of you shouldn't stop - just use the first thing to make a placeholder that is easy to find later. ShadowMan, MagicLady, CreepyGrandma, BigFurryMonster, NiceButCreepyBoy, ... - everything is fine as long as it's easy to find.

That way you can stay in the flow and continue with the important stuff to know how your characters act and behave - which will allow you to more easily come up with a useful name for them. You have to learn about your character first before you can give him a fitting name. And to learn about your character you have to write something that he is part of. It's completely normal to leave the naming for later, for example the first revision.

  • 4
    In the UK at least "Secespitus's" is fine. In Newcastle, there is a stadium called St. James' Park and in London a tube station (and park) called St. James's Park. No one has any trouble comprehending meaning in either case. – Strawberry Mar 9 '18 at 13:17
  • @Strawberry Yes, that is grammatically correct. According to the Oxford Dictionary "With personal names that end in -s: add an apostrophe plus s when you would naturally pronounce an extra s if you said the word out loud: He joined Charles’s army in 1642." – David K Mar 9 '18 at 13:34
  • 3
    @Strawberry It seems like I confused a few German and English rules there. Thanks for pointing it out, I updated the example. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 9 '18 at 14:46
  • @Secespitus: Don't worry - it's a very common misconception amongst native English speakers anyway; I was actually taught at school that you'd write things like "Jesus' cows" (and, as pointed out by Strawberry, this form finds its way into "official" usage) even though it's not strictly correct (and, IMO, not preferable). – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 10 '18 at 22:57
  • 2
    If your composition software supports macros (LaTeX, microsoft Word) you can define one for a character's name. Then you can change the macro at will - faster and safer than search/replace, though possessives may still be a problem. So will short versions other characters use in dialog. – Ethan Bolker Mar 11 '18 at 20:51
10

I often face the same problem with finding names, not just for characters, but also for places, titles, etc. In such cases, I use a temporary name, and specific markup, to make those temporary names easy to find later. For example

{Alpha} and {Bravo} lived in {TownName} town, {X} leagues from {CapitalName}. {Alpha}'s parents...

When I find a name, this system makes it easy to find and replace, without accidentally replacing something I don't want to. And I can easily go over a document, search for { tags, to see what I still need to name.

Another thing I do is I keep around a list of names that sort of work for my setting, and for minor characters, at least, I pick one at random. I can always change it later, right? Where do I get the list? Names I come across, and like the sound of. I do research for whatever I'm writing, I run across relevant names, I write them down.

The thing you don't want to do is sit around for days, not continuing your story because you can't find a name. Like you say, it kills momentum completely.

9

This is a useful book, Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. Each name comes with its original translation of meaning (although some are just 'mythical mother of Jason', or a few per page 'unknown origin'.)

This is a useful website of many links to online naming resources, baby names, character naming apps, etc. Writing World Links to Naming Resources.

With or without a book or online assistance; start a note page for your names with the Alphabet listed, one letter per line. This is both to remember the names you have used, and help you come up with new ones.

A,B,C,D etc.

When you need a name, look at your existing list of names.

For "important" characters (those appearing in more than one scene), try to pick an unused starting letter, or if that is not possible, at least be sure to get a name that sounds (out loud) and looks (in print) distinct from other names starting with the same letter, whether male or female. If you have "Dean", don't use "Deana" or "Diane" or "Dana" or "Dino". But "Drake" would be fine, or "Dimitry". No pair from "Tory" and "Tony" and "Troy".

Star (*) the names of your "important" characters.

Less important for reader memory is minor characters that they only need to remember for the scene (if they have names at all). For minor characters, it is best if they have unique names, but less important if they happen to be similar to a main character name. I always avoid ANY character name starting with the same letter as my main character, which I also aim to give a fairly rare name. If I name her Alicia (I never have), no other character has a name starting with "A", even if it would sound completely different.

  • 2
    I like this advice for breaking out of mental ruts, but see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birthday_problem - it may help realism if you pick one or two first names and use them for more than one person. The same is true of starting letters - one or two might be used for a plurality. – Darren Ringer Mar 9 '18 at 14:09
  • 4
    @DarrenRinger Just my opinion, but statistical realism is not really important to me, nothing trumps clarity for the reader. I would not do this except for comic effect: "This is Darryl, this is my other brother Darryl." [Bob Newhart sitcom]. I expect 99.999% of readers will never notice that, Golly, all these characters have different names! Does Amadeus really expect me to buy that? Clarity first. "This really happens" is never an excuse for putting something in a story. It is only something to be checked, e.g. if the story is realistic, char cannot run a 3 minute mile. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 9 '18 at 14:41
  • +1 for keeping a notebook with a list of names - add to it whenever you come across a name in real life, or think of some interesting name, or read one in a book, or whatever. – davidbak Mar 11 '18 at 0:30
9

As a GameMaster in pen&paper roleplaying games, I have to come up with names all the time, and unlike a writer don't have the luxury of pondering over it for some minutes (or hours).

The best method I found so far is this:

  1. For major characters draw up your cast including names beforehand. There are many reasons for this, one of them being that all their names should be easy to remember and recognize and not similar to each other (unless intentionally so).
  2. For minor characters have a list of names nearby. There are dozens of name generators or name lists on the Internet, use any. However, randomly sort the list before printing. Then check off names as you use them, to avoid duplicates, and write a few words behind the name which character you used it for (e.g. "prison guard", or "suspicious merchant at the marketplace"). This way you get both unique names with zero effort and a list of minor characters to reference in case the players (in my case) or the story (in your case) ever comes back to them.
8

My suggestion is to do what you would do every time you're stuck on something: make anything up, and move on. A name, more than any other words, is often nothing but a place marker. Once you come up with a good name, you can make a search-and-substitute across the whole document with one single operation.

I generally try to come up with names based on the sound they have in the sentence, the way they change the pace and musicality of the sentence. My point being: if you don't have anything in mind, just go for the sound and pace, to make the passage sound smooth.

Another great criteria for names is their meaning: if in your world names have meanings, or etymology, go for it. References are also a smart idea: in The Name of the Rose, Eco calls his protagonist "Guglielmo da Baskerville" as a reference to Sherlock Holmes.

Finally, a software like Scrivener includes a tool to randomly generate coherent names, where you can specify the letters in it, the initials, the length, etc.

7

I believe there are two ways to deal with the problem you describe:

1) use a temporary name to be replaced later

If it doesn't bother you to give the character a random name, whether it's Alice or blonde girl, go with this option.

If you prefer a descriptive name (eg. blonde girl), great.

If you prefer a more normal name, I suggest creating a list of names, similar to the list for naming storms, and then just use the first name of the list and so on. Although, obviously, you may want to have two lists, for male and female names. You don't even have to spend much time on it. Just google something like 'filetype:pdf 100 popular names USA' (obviously, you may want to change the country to fit your setting) and then print out the result.

You can even have a third list for unisex names, in case you're naming a character you haven't yet decided if it will be male or female.

Of course this approach has the problem of how to replace the temp name with a definitive one in as efficiently and quickly as possible. @Secespitus answer, though, has the only solution I know of.

2) use a definitive name

This approach is more problematic, but I cannot write on if a character I've just created does not have their own name. It's one of those 'writing blocks' I have to deal with. If this is not a problem for you, ignore this approach. If you must have the right name... here is how I go about it.

Do you know the lists I advised above? I added such a list into an excel file. I have first names and surnames, and I added information about whether their female, male or unisex. I also added information about their meaning and origin/language. Then I further specified whether their modern, traditional or dated. Then I put together some formulas to choose random names.

Now, when I need to name a character, I simply choose gender, origin/language and whether it's modern/traditional/dated (or leave those categories blank) and click a button. If I need to have a character whose name is related to a specific meaning, I can write, say, 'white', and get a relatively short list that can go from Blanche to Alvina. These categories are separate for first name and surname, so that I can choose whether the specific theme I want is present in both or in only one of the names. I can also choose to have two first names or two surnames (handy for other cultures where people have more names) and I can freeze one name I like while keeping on searching for a surname. I know, it's a rather complex name generator.

I spent a lot of time on this generator but I cut down from spending one hour or more searching for the right sounding name to five minutes (in the worst case scenario; it's usually a matter of seconds). I had to name a team of ten background characters, and they were all 'perfectly' named in less than ten minutes.

If you are less picky, you can just copy&paste a list of names, identify the gender, and add a number for each name. Then just use a RANDOM function to create a basic generator.

6

In addition to Dan Clarke's answer, I would suggest using names you've decided in advance, i.e. Alice, Bob, Carol, etc. This will make it easier for you to remember which names need to be replaced later.

  • 1
    Welcome to Writing.SE Defiant_Kitsune! This is an important addition and I think it's good as its own answer, but in general each answer should stand on its own. I'd suggest editing your answer to talk about the stuff Dan mentioned in your own words a bit (and removing the last sentence, which looks like this should be flagged as "comment, not an answer" and might therefore lead to your answer being deleted if enough community members think so). If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 9 '18 at 7:46
  • 1
    It's a good addition that I hadn't thought of. Try to expand it a bit and you're golden. – Dan Clarke Mar 9 '18 at 7:48
5

I know a good many writers spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting the names of characters. This is similar to the nine months or so that parents frequently spend selecting the name for a single child. As writers, we have entire worlds to populate so we cannot afford to do that.

I feel like sometimes I have some momentum going forward and taking too much time to select a name stops said momentum.

In my opinion, anything that reduces writing momentum is bad. There is no one strategy for moving past name selection and what works for one writer may not be good for another.

If you can skip this point and come back to it later, it may be more productive (or not).

Here are some strategies that I have known writers from my local writing circles employ.

Strategies

Placeholder

I've seen several good writers say that if you get stuck for a name or a description type a character string that never occurs naturally and move past it.

I have often typed something like:

## This guy needs a name ##

or

## Description goes here ##

If you wanted to get advanced you could use:

##[CHAR-1]##

Which would stand out as wrong in a finished manuscript but would allow for easy search and replace when you are finished.

No names, please

I have read stories where the characters are simply known by distinctive elements.

  • The man with the blue hat
  • The woman with the red hair
  • The old guy
  • The girl with the blue dress
  • The man with the shaggy beard
  • The homeless dude
  • etc..

This works for short stories and for characters that are just passing through but gets old really fast for significant characters.

My name is...

I've known more than one (discovery) writer that will put the character "on the stage" in a scene, maybe describe them a little, and then have another character ask their name.

"My name," said the boy, "is #The first thing that comes to your mind#"

For some writers, they feel the characters already know their names or at least what they want to be called. So they just ask them. Don't judge, it works for those writers.

Re-use friends and family

When I was very young (pre-teen), my stories would be written using the names (and middle names) of family and close friends. I often renamed them later but I found it helped to have a person I could imagine and knew well.

Prepared name list

Quite a common strategy is to maintain a list of setting appropriate first and last names. I know more than one writer that will make sure the list has only one of each for any given letter of the alphabet.

When a character needs a name they pick the next name from the list and just roll with it.

One time I write a PHP script to generate a name with a given letter. It was basically just a really big list of names (first and last) which picked one of each at random. For the benefit, the effort was not worth it. If that works for you, there are random name and even identity generators online.

Pre-filled character biographies

This one is popular with planners. I have used it more than once.

The strategy is to create a side of A4 with details about the character, their name, their background, and the journey they will go through during the story. That way when I am writing the issue never comes up.

This works for me because I can take the time to come up with names while I am not worrying about story, plot, or anything else. By the time I come to write the story, I feel I really know the characters. I've even used family tree software before to work out how they were all related to each other. But then again, I am the type of person that will write a setting bible for a big project.

Work from a book of names

I have several books of names and their meanings on my bookshelf. I have also used baby name websites for those times when I absolutely have to have the right meaning for some reason.

If you name characters on the fly one or both are invaluable.

Let your local writer's group name them

I have mixed feelings about this approach. However, it seems common for a person to ask for a name for a character that (insert short bio here). Some people seem to enjoy the discussion that follows. Your mileage may vary.

The most important thing

What matters most - more than names - is telling the story. If you have to call your characters Bob, Jane, and Fred to get to the storytelling, then that is what you should do. Names take on significance because of what we know about the person that has the name.

As you have rightly realised, don't let anything stop the writing momentum.

4

Keep a list of names

Early in Time Clare's writing podcast Couch to 80k he sets the reader a task of spending 10 minutes inventing names.

I loathe and detest coming up with names, and was dreading it. But I found that approaching the job as an end in itself, with no particular goal in mind, very liberating, and I easily jotted down a page full.

He then invites the listener to look over the list and see if any of them suggest a character. But he also points out that such a list is extremely useful to have around if you're writing and suddenly need the name of an incidental character.

So: write a list. Keep it around. You might find it more fun and more useful than it sounds.

3

Pick one that sounds interesting and easy to spell. Once you find a name you like use a basic "Search and replace" on your writing program and switch it around. It only adds a few minutes to your time, and it keeps things moving.

This method has let me change some characters names 5 or 6 times until I found one I liked.

3

I sometimes look up information on sporting events of the past and change the first names and surnames e.g. Look up an FA Cup Final and use the first name of the goalkeeper from team A with the surname of the goalkeeper from team B. Failing that, have a wander round any cemetery and pull a few names from there. If a character was born in a particular year, which actors were around then?

1

An issue I occasionally encounter in my DnD games is naming NPCs... Typically I have to consider race and region, but for when I'm writing (usually short stories and aborted epics, lol) I tend to drop in the first name that comes to mind with a vowel tacked to the end, and when I proofread I make sure I'm not duplicating a name. If not, I drop the vowel, if I am, I take time to consider something else then. Saves my momentum for the actual writing.

1

Have a separate process for writing names:

This is only a suggestion. But an answer to your question, nonetheless. With a separate process, you can spend your energy on writing and focus later on the editing process. Name creation can be seen as an editing process.

Here's an idea to help you:

Yes, you should come back to it later. That's the first thing. As mentioned in other answers, use a temporary name (or some kind of descriptive tag) so that your momentum isn't disrupted by trying to come up with an appropriate name.

Second, think of a simplified meaning for that character. You can use an adjective, attribute, or even the type of person they are or what they represent (a king, a lion, a snake, etc...). Find something that suits them based on who they are in your story.

Third, look up the meaning online. Let's say your character is a regal type. Maybe a name that means "king." You'll get many names to choose from, and also the place of origin for that name.

Fourth (optional), if you really want it to sound different for whatever reason, change it a little. Perhaps the meaning might be difficult for the reader to find out, but you're the author. You can do whatever you want.

Again, this is just one idea, but it is one way to not get stuck when free writing. You can look at it as a tool you can use later and not have to worry about or ruin your momentum in the meantime.

Here's a couple sites that I've found helpful:

https://www.behindthename.com

http://www.meaning-of-names.com

1

You could always consider adjusting the flow of your story to accommodate the unknown.

Either make it so that the person's name is not necessarily revealed just yet,

  • The woman with the red dress simply turned her back to me and said, with not even a turn of her head, “You'll need a better shirt first.”
    Maybe. Through the din of the crowd, she could've said something else.

Or, the person gives themself a colorful or silly autonym which is later superseded by another.

  • “You can call me ‘Al’.”

In effect, you can use your indecision to your advantage and be slightly more spontaneous. This seems like a good recommendation because you'd probably already have a name for a person if you were planning their introduction.

1

Most people are answering the implicit question of "How do I generate a list of names", instead of the title question.

If that's what you want, could you edit the title to fit?


I'd say, if you don't need a name immediately, give them a placeholder, like "{A}", then just keep describing their actions or whatever, and fill in the name later, going progressively down the alphabet when you need more names.

But if you're choosing meaningful names, then a name change would change the course of your story, so it may be best to pick it before continuing.

Then again, once you know what they do in your story, a meaningful name may be easier to find.

Events are usually the same, no matter what the names of things are...

1

Use a name generator which you can get from Google play or Apple store for free. Just like the password generators.

1

I use to think well chosen character names were uber important. When I noted that a famous American playwright gave character names from A to Z in order of appearance, I thought he was making a statement to put your creative energies into good writing and not pondering good names. Unfortunately I can't recall the screenplay. Anyone know?

1

I seems to me that no one really took into account that we are talking about freewriting.

The whole point of freewriting is that you don't stop to reflect, but write down your stream of consciousness without editing it in any way.

From the rule that, while freewriting, you shouldn't correct orthography, find the right words, or even force yourself to stay on topic, but write whatever comes into your mind, it follows that regarding names you should also use whichever label comes to your mind first: a name ("Peter"), a characterisation ("the man"), or a placeholder ("M") – and then write on. You will know who you refer to, even if that label changes in the course of writing, and you will remember who you thought of when you revise your text later.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.