I don’t know if it’s a Northern thing or a Southern thing or just a family thing, but I was raised with the impression that names are everything. It’s something you’re proud of, but at the same time it’s a burden that you have to live up to. Being told you haven’t lived up to your name is the worst insult anyone in my family can give.
On top of all the family stuff, I have this weird thing about refusing to change a character’s name once I’ve started writing the story. I’ll fuss around with names while I’m brainstorming and getting a feel for the character. In fact while I’m outlining and planning the names change almost every day, but as soon as I write their name in the context of the story it’s locked. They’re officially a person, and in my mind at that point I don’t have the right to change their name.
So yeah, what name I give a character is something I put a lot of thought into, and since I want it to be just right I tend to use a lot of outside resources when choosing a name for one of my characters.
In the end which resources I use depends on how much I know about character.
- Like Bethany, if I base a character off a real person I normally don’t give that person’s name to the character. In my mind they are separate people both deserve their own names. However, I decided to base a character off that person for a reason, so I usually try to give them a related name. For something like this I usually use Baby Name Guide because they have a feature where you can locate similar names. I also use this if I’ve already decided on the names of the parents and want the child’s name to be in keeping with theirs.
- However, if I’m writing a period piece or a piece with older or younger characters I make a point to use a site like Baby Names World at Parents Connect. They have a list of the most popular baby names in any given year all the way back to 1880. All you have to do to get time appropriate names is to select the sex of the character and the year they were born, and the site will give you a list of the 100 most popular baby names from that year. If I want the character to stand out then I simply go out of my way to pick a name not on that list.
- For last names Mongabay is my favorite, since last names are important too. It provides a list of thousands of surnames ranked by popularity. Ranked names doesn’t sound like a big plus, but it comes in really handy. Since people don’t typically choose their own last names having the names ranked makes it easy for me to randomly pick last names. I just pull up a site search, randomly type in string of numbers, and it takes me to the corresponding name. It gives a nice random twist to the process.
- Then again if I’m dealing with a character from a different country Familypedia is really nice because they have the top last names from hundreds of countries. I tend to worry a lot about giving a character from a different country the wrong last name, and this makes the process a lot less stressful for me. All I have to do is find the country of origin and presto a realistic last name from Russia, South Korea, Italy, ect.
If it weren’t for these sites (or the stacks of books about names I failed to mention previously) all of my characters would probably be stuck with names like Mary Smith and Jack Hopkins.