What’s In a Name?

telephone book - white pagesHow many times have we, as writers, sat down to write something new, and gotten stuck on the very basics – picking names for our characters?  I know this has happened to me more than once, and I’ve put in a “stand-in” name to take the place of what I’ll eventually use.  A find and replace later will fix it.

But I’d like to start with the right name to begin with, and sometimes I won’t allow myself to write until I figure out what that character’s name is.  It seems important, somehow, that they have the right name.  At least, for the hero and heroine, it feels like it is important.  For ancillary characters, names can wait, or any name will do.

So where do I find names?  I have multiple sources, but my favorite for last names has to be the phone book.  Not that we really get those anymore, but I have an old rather dog-eared one I use to look at names.  I lived in a large metropolitan area up until a few years ago, so our white pages were four inches thick.  Plenty to choose from there.  For first names, I often hit my “60,000 Baby Name” book.  If I can’t find it in there, it probably doesn’t exist.

But what about ethnic names, historical names, etc.?  Well, in this case, the web is my friend.  There are hundreds of websites that list names from all ethnicities and nationalities.  There are lists for Jewish names, Mexican names, Portuguese names, Italian names, etc.  Need a name for an Aboriginal from Australia?  There are web sites for that too!

I have also been known to use old families from my own background when I’m looking for something unusual.  I might also write down an unusual name of someone I read about in the newspaper.  I have a running list of unusual names on my bulletin board.  I keep adding to it.  You never know when you’re going to need an unusual or striking name for a character.  Having that running list means I’ve always got something to pick from.

How do you pick names for your characters?  What are your favorite sites to look at, or favorite ways to look at names?

2 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

  1. I’ve used the white pages for last names as well (I’m never getting rid of my old phone book!) We have a pretty diversely ethnic population here, so I can usually find what I’m looking for.

    I’ve written a couple of books set in WW2 so the names have to be popular ones, or at least ones that were used, in the 1920s. Luckily, there are websites with that kind of information. What did writers do before the Internet?

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