What’s In A Name? Thirteen Writers On How They Name Their Characters


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Wow. I don’t have any kids (but if I had a girl I’d name her Arwen…), but I do occasionally need a new name or two.

As an occasional fiction writer, one of the more unusual ways I’ve come upon in my search for names is saving typographical errors. Sometimes a clumsy day at the keyboard can yield several odd or interesting names usable for mythical places, people and things. Rarely, I’ll take these neologisms and tweak them a little bit. I also use my iPhone’s “autocorrect” screw-ups as names and story prompts. Sometimes the really random things inspire me more than any kind of formally developed name or place.

I realize my own process is a little bizarre, so I thought I’d reach out to a few fiction writers of my acquaintance to see if there’s any method they use when coming up with names. Here’s what they had to say:

Here are what several authors had to say:

Joe Bonadonna, author, Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser
My process is fairly simple. For my fantasy: I often take real names and jumble the letters around. I sort of make anagrams out of them. I take Biblical names and mythological names and change a letter or two. I use a lot of Latin names from ancient Rome. Sometimes a name just pops into my head. My Dorgo Mikawber is basically Gorgo, and because he’s a lot like Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield, I gave him that surname.

For my space opera: alien names followed pretty much the same plan as my fantasy. Human names are from people I know, and old-Hollywood actors. Cooper Preston is Gary Cooper and Robert Preston from Beau Geste; I figured that was a good name for a journalist. Generals were named for film directors, like Hawks and Ford. One character named for Sergeant O’Hara from the old Rin-Tin-Tin TV show. One character named for Akira Kurosawa. I don’t go for symbolic as much as I go for a name that I think suits the character. As for my pirate novel, I used real historical names of the period, using French and Dutch names, Scots, Irish, Arab, Persian and even Philistine names. I look for names that have color and stand out.

That’s pretty much it. I play with real names, and even names of things, rearranging the letters until I have something I like.

Peter Clines, author, Ex-Communication
“I made up the super-strong, fire-breathing character of the the Dragon as a little kid. But I also knew in the post-apocalyptic world I was creating a lot of the superheroes and civilians were going to be on a more casual, first-name basis with each other. Most of them probably wouldn’t even have secret identities or code-names anymore. But I still wanted it to be clear that the Mighty Dragon, as the “alpha hero,” would be looked up to and treated with great respect in this little community. As it happens, I’ve always liked the story of St. George and the Dragon, and that solved several issues right there. It also didn’t take long to go from there to making his real name George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s character from It’s A Wonderful Life, which served three purposes. It it tied St. George to a character with a very solid moral code, it gave him a bit more of a “Superman” feel to him (the powerful hero with the goofy, everyman secret identity), and it also humanized him as a guy trying to deal with the very recognizable name his parents had hung on him.”

Bob Fingerman, author, Minimum Wage
It varies. Sometimes there’s a lot of thought that goes into it; other times my eyes rove my room, looking at spines of books and words in foreign language dictionaries. Sometimes they’re homages to people I know or that have inspired me. Often, if the character is based on someone I know in reality I work a few variations to keep them in the ballpark of the real person’s name, but at several removes to keep it private and a bit clever (but hopefully never clever-clever).

Felix Gilman, author, The Rise of Ransom City
It depends on whether it’s an important character or not. If I need a name for a minor throwaway character I’ll often just pull something from a book on the nearest shelf. Important thing is not to lose momentum. You can always go back and change it later if you find you’ve named too many minor characters “Stephen King.”

Major characters are difficult because you want something that sounds right, but which also will continue to sound right the 1,000 time the reader reads it. And after a while you start to have seen the name so often that it looks like simultaneously like utter nonsense and also the only name this person could possibly have. . . I can flip-flop horribly on major character names.

I don’t think I have ever given a character a symbolic name as such. Sometimes if a character is a little bit based on a historical figure it’s nice to give them a name that acknowledges that connection. You want to try to give the character a name that just slightly nudges the reader in the direction of thinking of the character as the sort of personality they’re supposed to be.

Daryl Gregory, author, Raising Stony Mayhall
Mostly character names are all about the rhythm. But sometimes a name picked out for the sound turns out to be symbolic–or at least symbolically useful. Once I stumbled across the name “Stony” in an early draft of the novel that became Raising Stony Mayhall, I realized it worked pretty well for a main character who’s a zombie and doesn’t know how it’s possible for a dead thing to be animate. He could have had another name, but this way it was like getting a double word score.

Barbara Hambly, author, Good Man Friday
No, the names aren’t symbolic,except in the Benjamin January books when I name slave-dealers after disgusting things, like Mulm (the green slime at the bottom of fish-tanks) or Gleet (genital sores). (I haven’t named anybody Smegma yet). Generally, in fantasies, I just go with things that sound good to me, though they’re often vaguely Tolkienish (since I grew up on LotR).

Alexander Irvine, author, Buyout
My characters’ names come from all over the place. If I’m working on a story and I have a name floating around in my head from the radio or newspaper or someone I used to know that I just happened to think of, it goes on the page and stays there either until it’s cemented in because I’m done with the story or until something else in the process of writing the story makes me change it.

My two main go-to resources when I’m hung up on a name are 1) athletes, especially hockey and soccer players whose names are more varied and interesting; and 2) people I knew when I was a kid. I’ve also stuck my friends’ names into various books without them knowing it, although occasionally they find out when they read something I wrote. Every once in a while I name a character as a little homage (like Martin Kindred in Buyout, whose surname is the K. in Philip K. Dick), and sometimes those homages are subconscious: When I was writing A Scattering of Jades I named a character Royce MacDougall, and then discovered that I’d actually just stolen the name when I re-read Salem’s Lot. Which is my favorite Stephen King book, so that’s okay.

Joe R. Lansdale, author, The Thicket
Sometimes the names I use are symbolic, or mean something special from me. But I’m not above looking in the phone book or other books for first names and last names, and I latch onto interesting names now and then. I mix it up so it doesn’t turn out to be a living person, or at least consciously. I’m sure there are a lot of Leonard Pine’s out there. Leonard is a character in my Hap and Leonard series. My uncle was named Leonard, and my brother’s middle name is Leonard, and Pine fit East Texas, which is full of them. Hap Collins. The last name came from a friend, Nancy Collins, but I also have known other Collins. I thought it sounded common enough with being as bland as Smith or Jones. Hap is a name I heard, and I thought Hapless fit Hap. I guess it could be short for Happy. Well, sometimes it is. But the idea is I can do it very consciously, or randomly when I’m just in need of a name.

Arvid Nelson, author, Rex Mundi
Sometimes angels whisper a character’s name into my ear, and other times I really have to struggle for the right name. And the right name is important. For foreign characters I usually look up cast and crew members from movies of that nationality. Which explains why all my Italian characters are named Sergio Leone.

Corey Redekop, author, Husk
A lot of times, I’ll look at nearby books for inspiration, but I also find old graveyards a terrific source. Where else would I have come across the name Lambertus? I don’t go for symbolic names, but I do like the name to somehow capture the character of the character, so to speak. It’s not always possible, and my characters usually go through many names before I either hit on the winner or run out of time.

Rob Rogers, author, Devil’s Cape
A good fictional name should evoke some kind of emotional response or suggest something about the character or location without beating the reader over the head with it. Real names are a great place to start, but if you choose entirely at random, you’re losing opportunities both to enrich the character and to help the reader keep track of which character is which.

In my novel Devil’s Cape, for example, Cain Ducett is the Louisiana native with a dark past; Kate Brauer is the smart, self-assured outsider from the north; Jason Kale–who has abandoned his family name of Kalodimos because of his family’s crime history–is more of a classic heroic type with ties to Greek mythology, etc. The names aren’t so abnormal that they sound unreasonable, but they’re not completely generic, either.

Scott Sigler, author, Pandemic
first I just made names up on the spot, until after about two hundred characters I found they started to have similar names, and on two occasions I actually named different characters in different books the same name, which eventually caused confusion among my readers. Then I switched to flipping open the phone book (we’re talking pre-internet days, mind you) and finding unfamiliar names that felt right. A few years ago I was using fan names as characters, but have moved away from that. Now it’s largely a random process: names from non-fiction books, Googling names that match a character’s ethnicity or region, or just filing away names that strike me.

Anthony Taylor, author, Thunderbirds: Arctic Adventure
I look for a little alliteration and let it loose. I use the Thesaurus, and I frankly steal a lot from Shakespeare. Put his names in a hat, shake it up, pull out random firsts and lasts. Also, I write down great names from real life and keep them handy when starting a new project.