Naming Your Darlings

What’s in a name?

Naming your characters can be one of the most important and nerve wracking parts of writing a story. No matter how badly you may want to, it’s simply not acceptable to submit a manuscript with ‘Placeholder’ or ‘To Be Determined’ as a protagonist. Namey McNameface is also frowned upon. 

Names not only give readers a way to differentiate and refer to characters, they help define the character and the world they live in. They may have a Viking name to reflect a Nordic kingdom or a posh, modern name to reflect a wealthy family. For something so small, names play a huge role in storytelling.






How to Choose a name

To choose a name you first need to consider the type of world your character inhabits, Take into consideration time period, language, and even the personality you want your character to have. If you’re writing a cowboy romance then you may want to choose a name like John rather than Zaphod Beeblebrox. A heroine may have a name like Ruby to reflect both her fiery red hair and her temper, while Quinn is an elegant girl living Greenwich. 

It may be helpful to make a list containing information about your character such as birthday, place of birth, and even family details if they play a role. Perhaps your rebellious teeanger is bitter because she was named for aunt Gertrude, your witch Angelique may be from a long line of French witches. Having this information before you start searching for a name will make your job much easier.

Using the right resources

The internet has thousands upon thousands of name databases, but not all are created equal. For example, I’ve found 20000-Names to be outdated and incorrect. If you choose a name which is totally out of place, eventually someone with knowledge of that region or era is going to come across it…and they may even review it. It was a great story except there is no way Chad was king of a secret Himalayan kingdom. 

For recent names check various government databases. For the United States lists of most popular baby names by year are kept by the Social Security Administration, but many countries have equivalent lists. All you would need to know is a rough estimate of your character’s age and their gender. 

Wikipedia articles can also be a great resource for finding names. Read about historic figures, read about international entertainers. Even if their names don’t interest you, their might be a great name hiding in their inner circle. Plus, since it’s a name that was used by an actual person that means it won’t be viewed as strange or incorrect.

I also really enjoy Behind the Name. It is a huge online database of names organized by culture, mythology, and letter. Many names even have polls showing how people perceive the name. Is it young or old? Sophisticated or not? It’s a truly amazing resource, especially if you’re writing a fantasy piece. The huge collection of names organized by mythology and meaning means that you’ll be able to find or at least be inspired by names that fit the overall arc of your story.

Omniglot can also be a good resource for fantasy writers, but for less traditional reasons. Omniglot is not a name resource, but rather a collection of information on every language in the world. It even offers information on fictional and constructed languages which can be very useful for creating a language and potential names.



Resource links

SSA Name Lists

UK Name Lists

Behind the Name

Behind the Surname

Most Popular Surname by Country

Most Popular Given Name by Country

Most Popular Names by State (US)


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