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So, basically, how do you name side characters? I get that you should give the main characters meaningful names, but finding suitable names for all of my characters is distracting and time-consuming. Then again, I want the names to fit because I can't be sure I won't use some characters again later.

How can I quickly come up with a name for a side character that feels right enough for me to keep it and move on?

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    This might be a bit subjective to answer since it depends on your setting, tone, etc. It may be worth editing the question to be more specific, i.e. telling us what genre you are writing for or the general plot of your story. – Sciborg Jun 22 at 21:40
  • I second Sciborg. The name would hugely depend on country, age or planet of your setting. – Alexander Jun 23 at 3:38
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In my opinion, there are three types of side characters:

  1. 'Throwaway characters.' These are the random people- shopkeepers, guards and innocent bystanders. They don't always need a name, but if they do have one, either (depending on the complexity of your worldbuilding) give them a name related to their place of origin, or just go on a random generator website or print a list of names to use (such as the list in the D&D, 5th edition "Xanathars guide to everything")
  2. One-occurrence characters. These are old men who give philosophical questions and disappear, the crime bosses who create a problem but are killed two chapters later... These characters need a bit more fleshing out, but again, can be named using a random generator, a list or worldbuilding, etymologically created names.
  3. Changing characters. These characters may start of as random tavern keepers or mothers, but for whatever reason become protagonists or support characters. These characters need naming like the main character, with deep, thought out names - or like some people, also through a random generator.

Last point. It is a useful tool employed by DM's and writers to write down a list of names for throwaway/one-occurrence characters, and when you use them to cross them off and write down who they are.

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    Note: whether you use a random name-generator or not, make sure you put the names you like into a Google search and make sure they're not the same as any real-world celebrities or well known characters from another works of fiction. Just because you've never heard a name before doesn't mean your readers haven't, so you don't want to have unintended associations with other people or characters of the same name, so it helps to do a search and see if you get a lot of hits for the same person/character or not. – Darrel Hoffman Jun 23 at 16:39
  • @DarrelHoffman: Alternatively, write in a fantasy setting or other context where everyone is mononymous, and then collisions are much less likely to matter. – Kevin Jun 24 at 19:02
  • @Kevin, a fantasy world with an MC called Donald Trump defeating the evil Barack Obama, would obviously have connotations. – ArtickokeAndAnchovyPizzaMonica Jun 24 at 20:08
  • @ArtickokeAndAnchovyPizzaMonica: Yes, but in fantasy settings, people are less likely to have last names (hence they are mononymous). – Kevin Jun 24 at 22:42
  • @Kevin, Trump vs. Obama, Laden vs Gaga, Beyonce vs. Beiber - the list goes on. Many famous people will be recognizable from one name – ArtickokeAndAnchovyPizzaMonica Jun 25 at 7:45
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My experience has been to concentrate on the story - first and foremost. That is what drives the success or failure of any kind of fiction. So, as you create each new character, if a name fails to materialize immediately, you might try labeling the first unnamed character as "AAA," the second as "BBB," and so on. This will temporarily identify each unnamed character on paper and within your mind. Then, following a few rewrites and further development of your character(s), appropriate names should pop into your head, and you can replace each label with a name that makes you happy.

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I recommend a book or a website designed for naming a baby. I have found them very useful, especially for minor characters.

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    My family writes a lot of stories and we literally have three baby name books sitting around. – Naomi Jun 23 at 0:25
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To me it depends on how important I think this side character would be. If it's a shop owner, worker, a throw away character for a one line in a battle, or the human roadblock stopping my character for that scene I may not give them a full name but a generic first name for the region my characters are in. My regions are loosely based off of actual countries so I can think what sounds like it would be from there.

Otherwise if a name must be given I will ether choose something random like Male%%% speaks to Female@! or use a baby registry that contains names selectable via country of origin and choose the name based off the first letter to pop into my head.

Then I put these into my mastery list of characters with details on who they are and what they were doing to jog my memory of this scene. Like:

Guard Emily - Refused heroes entry into the city. Guard Male## - Smuggled in heroes on May 14, 1312 for a bribe into city of Rapid Falls.

I also highlight over the bogus names in both the master list & the actual draft story so I can easily spot them for editing later.

You can use places like:

  1. Baby registries like http://www.babynology.com/

  2. Random Name generators like - https://www.mithrilandmages.com/utilities/Modern.php

  3. Or some writing programs under options have a random name generator equipped with them.

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For side characters I try to get along with a common name or without a name; sometimes people can be referenced by their profession only, sometimes by a feature or habit.

Example: There is "the bird-watcher" who can be seen every day in a park and who has witnessed something. Later in the story, they can be referenced again as the bird-watcher which should work because it's memorable. They might tell us what they saw and then leave the story. There is no need to use a name for the person here.

If I have to or want to use a name, I will go for common names but make sure there are not too many similar sounding ones in the same story. You should avoid to have persons called Ann, Annika and Annabelle all in the same story. In the end, I do not think too long about naming my side characters, I decide quickly and am happy with it.

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Not necessarily a recommendation for you, but a clever idea Anthony Trollope could get away with. His barrister is Mr Chaffanbrass. His generic farmer is Greenacres. The classy London doctor is Sir Omicron Pie. His rival potential prime ministers are Mr Brock (e.g. badger) and Lord de Terrier.

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