People and places need a name of some sort; it’s the first identity marker for the reader. For the writer, it depends on the character. Some writers believe a character’s name should mean something. A trait or quality the character already possesses or, in the course of the story, becomes or attains. Others just view it as a name and nothing more. I guess I fall more into the camp of ‘it’s just a name’ although in an effort to make my own writing a bit deeper, I have started to pick names with some kind of meaning.
But naming these people is just so hard. Every once in a while, I get lucky and a character will pop into my head pre-named. Like a Cabbage Patch kid. For the most part, I struggle massively with names. Not just people but places, too.
So how do I pick names? The most obvious and easiest place to start is with people I know. I also have a list of names that pop into my head. I keep the list on my computer but I do have a small notebook I keep in my purse just in case I see, hear, or think of a name.
Athletes are a great source of names, especially last names. Hockey in particular is a multi-national field of names. I actually got an inspiration for a character and a story through taking the last name of one player and combining it with the first name of a player on the opposing team. I also got the last name for the character’s best friend from the last name of a different player on the same team. Oddly enough, those character names will actually mean something once I get around to writing the story they inspired.
I also like to pluck names from TV shows or movies I enjoy. Sometimes it’s a particular character or an actor’s or actress’s name. This helps because it is a wide, multi-national pool to draw from.
Various websites are also helpful. If I’m looking for a name for a particular time period and the story is set in America, the Social Security website has databases of most popular baby names stretching back to the 1880s. When looking outside the States, I have turned to BabyName World because I can search names by ethnic groups in Europe, Asia, Africa, and all of the Americas. What’s also is nice about this website is it also gives you the meanings so if you want to add some more depth to your story, you can. Other than those two websites, I can also just enter into a search engine what I’m looking for if it is really specific. For example, if I’m looking for common last names during the late medieval period in England. And if I’m absolutely stuck, I use the name generator on Critique Circle‘s website.
Coming up with names of places is even more of a challenge for me. So far, I’ve picked place names based on looking around whatever coffee shop I happen to be in. I have a city names Tazos after the teas they carry in Starbucks. I used Macchiato as an inspiration for a crime family’s last name. I used another product sold in a coffee shop as the basis for the name of a made-up virus. I think this is why I sometimes shy away from referencing any place at all.
Even with all these resources, I still find names difficult. I have spent countless hours searching for just the perfect name, a part of my perfectionist nature to have things just right. And as I transition more into striving for that extra depth in my writing, the search for just the perfect name gets longer. But this can open up so many doors to get to know the character more for both the writer and the reader.