Names, names, names

Names done 13th century BC style. Credit: HoremWeb (Wikipedia).

Names done 13th century BC style. Credit: HoremWeb (Wikipedia).

Names are hard. Your characters’ names are often the reader’s first impression of them. They have to sound just right–not just right in general, but right for the character and right for the setting, and they probably shouldn’t share the name of a famous person. Real people might be able to get away with those kinds of things, but it’s a little harder if they live in a book, unless they’re the kind of person who would have a weird name, of course.

How do you pick names? Well, the Internet is a valuable resource. For example, if you’re looking for an America-centric name, the Social Security Administration has a list of the 1000 most popular names by year back to 1880. That’s especially good for finding names to fit the time period. I like to pick something in the high double digits, so it’s not “too common”. Mongabay has a good resource for last names. Based on the U.S. census, it includes even the rarest of names. This can sometimes surprise you. For example, I personally know someone whose last name is shared by only about 100 people in the whole country.

If you want a foreign name, or especially if you want to look up the meaning of a name, you can look to the self-explanatory 20,000 Names. It lists names from all around the world and is a great resource for a lot of major ethnicities. It also comes in handy because I often like to pick a name with some significant meaning to the story, without being too obvious about it. Such names aren’t always available, but it’s usually worth a shot. For last names, the coverage is not as good, but Last Name Meanings and Behind the Name are still worth a look.

If you’re in science fiction or fantasy, though, you might not have those resources. Do you just make things up? I prefer to be a little more systematic. I won’t create a whole language for an alien species, but I will create an alphabet. And I’ll assemble names using the sounds from that alphabet, sometimes even sharing common linguistic roots. Hopefully, that will make the different species appear more distinct and self-consistent.

So that’s how I figure out who my characters are. How do you name them?

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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