The craft and business of writing and self publishing

Down the Rabbit Hole? Tips and Tools for Naming Characters Quickly

By Chris Mandeville

Some writers don’t worry much about naming. They slap a label on a character and run with it. Other writers dive down the rabbit hole and put excessive amounts of research, thought, planning, and creativity into naming their characters. I tend to be on the extreme side of this spectrum: the side where it’s far too easy to get lost in an endless wonderland of names.

While wonderland is awfully fun, most days I can’t afford to stay for long. To prevent myself from wandering the rabbit warren for hours at a time, I rely on a few key tools that help me navigate the myriad of choices quickly, so I can get back to the business of crafting my story.1

If you’re one who dives down the Rabbit Hole of Naming and often gets lost—or if you simply want to add a few quick methods for naming a character to your writer’s toolbox—these tips and tools are for you:

TOOL: The simple solution is sometimes the best. For years expectant parents have consulted baby name books when naming their progeny, and you can do the same. These books are plentiful at libraries, bookstores, thrift shops, and yard sales. And nowadays you can download one from your favorite e-tailer without leaving your desk. Better still, there are free online tools that serve the same purpose. My favorite is babynames.com where you can sort and search in a number of ways, including celebrities, historical names, popular fiction, and more. To get in and out quickly, limit in advance the number of categories you’ll browse. For example, if I limit myself to three categories, I’m forced to focus. From the many available options, I immediately pick these three as the most appealing/applicable for the contemporary romance I’m writing: celebrity baby names, top world names, and Valentine’s names. By limiting myself, I’m not as overwhelmed by all the choices, and I’m not as apt to browse the site aimlessly for hours.

TOOL: If you’re writing a contemporary, historical, or near-future real-world setting, the U.S. Government can help you with names. No, really! The Social Security Administration lists the most popular names in the U.S. over multiple decades, sortable by year and by state: www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/index.html. Here’s how I find it useful: let’s say I’m writing a Young Adult romance set in Los Angeles in the “Valley Girl” days of the early 1980s. My two protagonists are fifteen years old, so they would have been born around 1967. To choose authentic names, I go to www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/namesbystate.cgi and select “California” and “1967.” That generates a list of the top 100 names for boys and for girls born that year. Quick as a wink, I zero in on “Mark” and “Kimberly,” the 7th most popular name for a boy, and the 3rd most popular for a girl. How cool is that?

TIP: Think about how your characters’ names look in relation to each other. If two names are visually similar, a reader may confuse one for the other. For example, in a fantasy story I’m writing, I have a protagonist named Carrie and an antagonist named Coyote. Because these names both start with “C,” end with “e,” and have the same number of letters, even *I* get them mixed up! Clearly I must change one of them before publication.

TOOL: Nameberry.com is a name search tool where (using the advanced functions) you can specify the letter you want the name to begin and/or end with, and the number of syllables.

TIP: Be kind to your reader when it comes to spelling and pronunciation. If a name appears difficult to pronounce, readers are likely to skip over it, which puts a distance between your reader and your character. It can also annoy readers, which may drop them out of the story. We want our readers to identify with our characters and stay engrossed in the story, so if you’re determined to name your villain Xqyrtikqo, consider spelling it Exquartico.

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TOOL: Using ethnicity and/or meaning to narrow down name options can give you a quick path to naming a character, especially when you use a site like behindthename.com. Let’s say I want to name a female character a Spanish-type name. I can narrow the list of names to Spanish (and related languages), and select gender: feminine. The site generates a list of about 500 names that I can browse. I can refine this list using the advanced search where I specify I want a name that means “sweet.” Bam, I’m down to three names to choose from: Dulce, Esti, and Eulalia. I quickly decide that Dulce and Eulalia seem difficult to pronounce, but Esti is awesome! I love that it means “sweet, honey” in Basque, which is perfect for my character who has honey-tones in her hair. Just like that—in under five minutes—I have a name that is far from run-of-the-mill.

TIP: If you’re writing fantasy, science fiction, or any sort of story where the setting exists only in your imagination, designing cultures for your characters can help you with choosing names. A short-cut to creating a culture is to start with an existing culture in the real world. For example, one of your clans (or countries or planets) could have a Viking-type culture with Nordic sounding names. To accomplish this, use a tool like 20000-names.com. Once you select your base culture/ethnic group, the pool of names is narrowed considerably—and they all sound like they belong together. Even if your imaginary culture bears no resemblance to the actual one, a little effort on your part to make your names internally consistent will be appreciated by your readers, even if only on a subconscious level. Plus it can help you name a whole group of people with speed and relative ease.

TOOL: When you’re really pressed for time or short on creativity, try choosing a name at random. Namator.com is a free online random name generator tailor-made for creatives like us. You can generate character names using either simple mode or advanced. The simple mode couldn’t be more simple: you click a button and ten names pop up. Advanced mode gives you control over gender and ethnicity. Don’t want to limit your choices to “ordinary” names? Let your fantasies run wild at namegeneratorfun.com where you can generate names specific to character types, particularly of the fantastical varieties. Need a name for an elf? A mermaid? A dragon? What about a steampunk name? Or a superhero? Or a pirate? This site has you covered. Beware: random name generating can be a rabbit hole all its own.

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FINAL TIP: Once you venture down the Rabbit Hole of Naming, it can be hard to climb back out. For safe exploring, always attach a lifeline — a kitchen timer or a trusted friend to rescue you at an appointed time should do the trick.

I hope these tips and tools help you navigate the wonderland of naming, so you can get back to the business of crafting your stories.

Do you have a favorite naming tip or tool? Please share it in the comments!

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Photo credit: Jared Hagan

Photo credit: Jared Hagan

Tools for Writers

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Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about her at chrismandeville.com

9 Responses to “Down the Rabbit Hole? Tips and Tools for Naming Characters Quickly”

  1. joymeredithwrites

    I definitely fall down the rabbit hole with naming characters and have lost entire afternoons of what would have been otherwise productive writing spent in anguish over this. A rose by any other name…not me. Great suggestions!

    Reply
  2. Julia Pierce

    Great itips! Since I have a very large cast, I picked nautical terms for my villagers, pirate names for their companions, and country of origin names for the animal guardians. I’ve ended up shortening most of them but at least I know where to go when someone new pops up. This is a lot like your ethnicity tip. It narrows down the possibilities, which can help keep you sane.

    Reply
  3. Karen Emanuelson

    Awesome article, Chris. Thanks! I’ve been researching a book I want to write about “The Flight” which was the evacuation of the Trakhener horses from Eastern Prussia across the frozen north the winter of 1945/1946. As the people drove these horses (most of them heavily pregnant mares) hitched to “trek carts” across a frozen lake, the Russians were bombing them. I’ve been thinking about German names & Russian names appropriate for that time.

    Reply
    • Chris Mandeville

      I love choosing historically accurate/appropriate names. When you set a story in a real historical time and place, that helps set parameters on naming. It doesn’t take away the creativity, but helps to narrow down the choices to something a whole lot more manageable. This story sounds fascinating, and fun for naming characters…and horses!

      Reply
    • Chris Mandeville

      Thanks, Anmarie. I think naming is a lot of fun. Hopefully you can try out these tips sometime–maybe you’ll have a goldfish to name, or perhaps try your hand at a short story… Enjoy!

      Reply

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