Naming Your Characters by Mary Reed

Ah, the writer’s eternal conundrum — what to do about naming your characters? At times it seems as if every name you can think of belongs to someone you know, which can give you pause.

Sometimes a character name just pops into your head. Isis O’Reilly presented herself to my attention in that very way over two decades ago. She still has not been made her bow to the public although one of these days she may leap into view. But consider the name: it suggests someone of Irish heritage whose mother was interested in mythology. And right there you have the beginnings of constructing a character, one of the important considerations in picking names IMHO.

Unfortunately, the writer has to find the right name before foundations can be laid. So proceeding on this notion, let us consider ethnic names. Here there be listings of interest, as well as links to pages of
offering unusual or biblical names:

Speaking of unusual names, the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources database offers a mix of exotic and more familiar names, satisfying both camps engaged in the “what should I name my characters” wars.

Helena Swan’s Girl’s Christian Names, Their History,  Meaning and Association appeared in the early 1900s. Here it might be as well to mention that in the UK a Christian name is equivalent to the US
forename. The index makes it easy to pick a name, given they range from Abigail to Zoe with fascinating notes about them, just as the title states.;view=1up;seq=7

Genealogy sites, ancient phonebooks, census records, and newspaper archives are fruitful sources, and all are easily found online. Another good source is the Social Security Administration website, which hosts a list of popular baby names by decade.

Poll lists are handy too. For example, picking a random block of five names from the 1880 New York City list produced Isaac Shedwick, William Smith Jr., Nicholas Stilwell, Lawrence Seabry, and Tobias Stoutenburg. Not surprisingly, this is a fertile source for male names given it was published quite some time before women were granted suffrage.;view=1up;seq=12

Creating a character hailing from Europe or descended from immigrants therefrom? The index of Robert Ferguson’s Surnames as a Science offers a dizzying amount of information on the topic. His index prints foreign names in italics along with their national origin. Dutch, Danish, French, German, Italian, and Spanish names are covered.

Speaking of foreign names, with a bit of a mix ‘n’ matching Gutenberg’s index of books could well be useful. This page lists authors whose works appear in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish. Stick a pin in here and there and who knows what character names will result!

If all else fails, there are always those most useful standby, character name generators. This site can provide over 200,000 name possibilities, individual results produced by specifying  gender, language,
nationality, parents’ names, friends, and other factors relevant to your character.

Some of my test drive results: Trinity Kaufman, Fynn Mccray, Azaan Rangel, and in a touch of woo-woo Reed Tilly. Amazing to relate, generated names are linked to their own bios including family details,
work, current relationship if any, hobbies, and a physical description. Can’t beat that with big stick!

A quick search of a second random name producer generated Georgetta Bourdeau, Dori Essex, Hilaria Wollman, and Wan Yoakum. Each is linked to others with the same first name or surname, so it’s particularly useful for naming characters’ relatives.

As for Isis O’Reilly, she’s still waiting for her fifteen minutes of fame. One of these days…

5 thoughts on “Naming Your Characters by Mary Reed

  1. radine says:

    Very interesting. Thank you for this post. In this morning’s paper I read about a man whose last name was Hardcastle–from South Africa. I always thought Lionel Hardcastle’s name in “Are You Being Served” Brit comedy on PBS was a really silly name. Maybe not. I still would not use the name!

    • Mary Reed says:

      It’s tempting to speculate how the original Hardcastles got their names! And in the same series while Captain Peacock sounds a bit unlikely I did once meet a lady with the same surname.

  2. marissoule says:

    I remember starting a romance with my hero named Drew. I thought it would be a good name for this character, but I also knew a little boy named Drew, and every time I wrote a scene with my Drew, I couldn’t stop thinking of that little boy. I finally changed the character’s name. Drew just wouldn’t work for me.

    • Mary Reed says:

      Some names are like that, they just won’t fit the character! I can’t be the only reader who’d like to know what name you chose instead of Drew — if you’d care to reveal it?

  3. radine says:

    OOPS, Hardcastle was on “As Time Goes By.”

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