Finding character names

Names say so much about a person. When you get a call or email from a stranger, you immediately get an idea of what that person looks like in your head based on their name. Some names sound blonde to me, like Vicki (maybe because I have a friend from my teen years who’s blonde). Some names sound old, like Gladys (it’s just an old-fashioned name).

For writing, the names we give our characters are so important. They immediately give the reader an idea of who this person is. A character called Thor is most likely a physically strong person (and in a fantasy). A character called Dandelion is most likely a girl and from hippie parents. Maybe she’s a surfer. (Hey, it’s no worse than Apple.)

Where do we find the perfect name? Many people use baby name books, and they are useful tools. I like the online baby name sites because you can search by meaning to get a name that says something about who your is. But there are other places too.

Someone in my critique group once asked me how I thought up the name for the bully in my novel: Rowdy Reckitt. Rowdy just stuck with me as a good bully name. And Reckitt, well, I saw that on the side of a toilet paper dispenser in a public bathroom. It was one part of a two-word brand name. (I can’t remember the other word now.) As I was sitting there (we all have to), I was staring at this word Reckitt and thought, wreck – it, a bully wrecks things. Eureka! And that’s how Rowdy Reckitt got his name.

Now, not every character’s name comes to me in public bathrooms. Actually, the place I most enjoy looking for names is in the credits for movies. After you’ve just finished watching a good movie, and your mind is alive with imagination, stay for the credits and read the names of the people who worked on it. You’ll find all kinds of first names and last names that could make some fun characters. For example, when I saw Mee Shee, I found these names in the credits: Angela Pyle (that last name is unfortunate and one likely to bring on lots of teasing by kids), Jonathon Noble (a good hero’s name), Jim Tuffy (Tuffy is just funny), Kerri Abungle (same with Abungle, and maybe the person is clumsy).

The reason I like movie credits is because there’s a vast number of random names. If you look through a phone book, you’ve got to know what letter you want the name to start with. If you search online, same thing. But with movie credits, you can get a look at a bunch of different names that can be mixed and matched for the perfect pairing for your character.

If you don’t have paper handy when you’re watching a movie (TV would work too, but those credits tend to go by so fast or are written so small it’s hard to read), try the Internet Movie Database. There, you can type in a movie name and click on Full Cast and Crew in the left navigation bar to get a full list of all the people who worked on the movie. Try The Day the Earth Stood Still. Here’s a few names I like from this list: Jessica Rain, Kyla-Rose Tremblay, Clark Credle, Britt Bancroft, Brent Boates, Dean Sheriff. There’s even someone called Hans Soto!

I’v never been fully satisfied with the last name of my main character, but looking through this list, I found Jonathan Woods and a light bulb went off. Woods would work. (I’m not saying why. You’ll have to read the book.) But Woods itself is too to the point. I wanted something else, like Woodman, or something. So I Googled “last names with wood” and found the White Pages, with a full list of Wood-related last names. Of course, a search like this can also easily be done by opening your own Yellow Pages now that you know what you’re looking for. Now I’ve got a long list of Wood names that I can choose from for my character.

What’s your favorite place to find character names?

Write On!

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