What’s in a Name?

I struggle with names.  I have trouble naming characters, places, chapters, and books.  I even have trouble coming up with good variable names while programming.


How does a writer come up with good names for their characters?

Sometimes, I use a baby names book.  Depending on the story I’m writing, I keep the book in my laptop bag, and dip into it when I need a character name for a minor character.  The book I use separates the names by region and genre, including fantasy.  It’s a pretty handy reference.

I like that for minor characters, but major characters I like to name well in advance.  I also want those names to be unique.  Sometimes I want the name to evoke some image or emotion that I relate to the character.  With major characters, I struggle the most.

With A Clean Slate, I looked for pictures of actors that I thought would be great to play my characters.  I was then able to play off of the actor’s names to come up with the character names, in one or two cases.

With The Repossessed Ghost, I used more contemporary names, since it was an urban fantasy.  Fortunately for me, I’d come up with the name of the main character well in advance, when I first developed the character for a roleplaying game.  Like many characters I’ve played, I pulled his name from the Bible (Melchizedek, shortened to Mel).

With the story I’ll be starting in a little more than 24 hours (!), I came up with something completely different.  I made the names part of the culture.  The young start with a short name.  Once they come of age and pass a ceremony, their names are extended by a syllable, depending on their gender.  Once they become elders in their respective communities, they pass through another ceremony, receiving yet another syllable.  The main character will start off as Sim, but will eventually be Simon.  His friend Dar will become Daron.  There may be a love interest named Jan,which will become Janel.

I like what I’m doing with the names in this coming story for two reasons.  First, I think it will be unique. Second, it’s a systematic method of names, which makes it a little bit easier to come up with names that will all fit in the same world.

As always, once I think I have a name, I google it to make sure it’s not already popular.  When I was coming up with Kate’s full name in The Repossessed Ghost, my addled brain thought it’d be acceptable if she had a last name of “Middleton.” That’s one of those names I probably shouldn’t have had to google, but then, I don’t follow British royalty.


How do you name places?

This is a tricky one to answer.  In The Repossessed Ghost, I didn’t have to come up with any place names, since it all takes place in the U.S.  In A Clean Slate, I drew a map with some geographic features, then figured out where villages and towns would be based on those features.  I looked at where the action would be going, and saw that I wasn’t going to need to name that many places.  Since I’d narrowed down the list of places I needed to name, and since most of them were rural, I used the natural features as part of the names.

In the new story, I have come up with a name for the island, but that’s about it.  The people are nomadic, and I’ve determined that families, clans, travel constantly.  Usually two or three clans travel together for a little while.  One of the conceits of the story is that these people can’t settle down, so there are no villages or towns to name.  I’ve determined that their family names are very basic or elemental.  For example, Sim is of the Rock clan.  Jan is of the Sand clan.  I’ll have to keep playing around with the names, to make sure I like how it feels.


How do you name your book?

This is the one I really struggle with, because the name of the book is a feature of marketing.  A Clean Slate might still get renamed.  Several people have told me that they like the name for The Repossessed Ghost, because it’s a little bit funny and a little bit clever.  It feels kind of wordy to me.  I still think of it as The Mel Walker story, and if it grows into a series, maybe it’ll be The Mel Walker Stories.  Maybe.

The point is that I don’t trust myself with marketing decisions.  I’d really rather an expert in that field tell me what my story should be named.

I don’t know what the new novel is going to be called yet.  I know that it is the first of three that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  I don’t know what the series should be called, either.


Names can be powerful.  It’s vital that you pick names that work for you, because you’re going to have to live with these names for a long, long time.

Personally, I don’t like names with a bunch of hieroglyphics in them.  I avoid apostrophes and umlauts.  That funky character that’s like an a and e having sex?  I don’t care for it.  I want my names to be easy for me to type.  I want my readers to be able to read the names I’m using without getting pulled out of the story.


What tips and tricks do you employ for coming up with names in your stories?