Written by Nathan Weaver, edited by Jake Cesarone.
There is no right or wrong way to develop names for your characters. But sometimes it can be difficult to just magically come up with names that just work for your characters and perfectly fit them.
We've put together a short list of some possibilities for developing names. Hopefully these are ideas you’ve not thought of yet, and you can find a new treasure trove of names you’ve not thought of by the end of reading this post. Be sure to share with us ways you find helpful in the comments we may not have thought of sharing.
#5 Pop Culture References
One method for coming up with names is by snatching them from culture references. Historical, musical, celebrity, literary, whatevs. I often will use culture references as a nod to works or artists who have influenced me or the work in some way. A way of dedication or simple thank you for their work.
Here are a few ways I’ve used cultural references in my works:
My references tend to be more obscure, like naming a doctor after a psychologist from the early 1920’s most people won’t recognize. But the beauty of using subtle references like these is that they become little Easter eggs and trivia for your works. Things people will find fascinating long after they’ve put down your book.
#4 BABY NAMES
I don’t know if you know this or not, being a writer and shut off from the world, but there are gobs of people out there who aren’t writers naming babies ALL THE TIME. They aren’t very creative, not like you, so there are websites and books in print with nothing but potential baby names. These baby name websites and books can be your playground as well. I’ll admit, I’ve found them useful from time-to-time, especially the websites that allow you to filter names by origins. This can help in picking appropriate names for someone with an Italian background, or Greek, and so on.
In our book GUN, I used Greek names for several characters and places. These I picked up from a website for baby names, which allowed me to browse by Greek and alphabetical order (I’m a sucker for the letters M, C, and B with names).
Baby names websites will often include filters for specific gender, gender neutral, origins, nationality, time period when they were popular (helpful when writing an older character or something period), and so on. Just perform a search for “baby names” and find your favorite site for narrowing it down, or shop for a book that fits your needs.
#3 Just Make ‘Em Up
Here’s a thought… just make those names up. If you’re a fantasy writer, this may be useful. But it’s certainly not easy. If I’m making up a name, I will often find a word or name I like, and then tweak it until it still has the impact I liked about it but different for the story. But honestly, I don’t make names up as often. I rarely work in fantasy, but when I do, I usually use really ancient names. Obscure Bible names, ancient Greek names, Babylonian names, etc. Or sometimes, at least use those references as starting points to create something similar, but different.
#2 Street Names
Using street names is a new thing for me, but I’ve been enjoying it. The nice thing about street names is that they’re everywhere and can often be used for both characters or places. I recently came into this idea by discovering a neighborhood near where I live that uses two names in the street names. For example, Perry Cate. That’s the name of an actual street. Each street sounds like someone’s first and middle name. Another neighborhood I found intriguing was one where all of the street names are French words or names.
Here’s how I’ve been putting those streets to work for me:
What about you? Consider the names of the streets in your neighborhood, or the one with all the people you can’t stand that’s a few blocks away—would some of those names be useful as places or people in your story?
#1 Names from Tombstones
Probably my number one favorite way to find unique names is by getting them off really old tombstones. The best way to do this is to, of course, go to an old cemetery and walk amongst the oldest tombstones and find some wonderful names from times gone by. Of course, be respectful, these are real people and likely with living family. Do not use full names. That’s disrespectful. But if it helps you find a first name or last name you would have never thought of on your own, that’s good. But again, be respectful.
I also have a short book written by someone who liked going to old cemeteries like myself, and they wrote down a comprehensive list of names for babies that were old and unique. It’s a good, little book. Just something I happened to spot at the end of the line at a local grocery store.
Names are everywhere. EVERYWHERE. So just look around you, or even use your own memories to conjure up names from your past. A street you lived on, a neighbor you knew. Names are literally everywhere, even in your own subconscious.