Naming Characters

Today I’m trawling baby naming sites to come with a new character name. I’ve accumulated quite a number of characters in my 10-book series, so any time I add in a new character (or decide to change an existing character’s name) it becomes a bit of a drama to find something that isn’t too similar to a name I’ve used before.

I keep a list of every named character, along with a brief description, if given (I tend not to over-describe them), and when they were first introduced. Currently the list has grown to over 300 names. Many of these are obviously minor characters or even off-hand references to people who never appear on-screen, but I’ve tried nevertheless to keep the names distinct.

Firstly, I always ask myself: Do I need to name this character at all? The usual writing advice is to never name walk-on characters, but this isn’t always possible. If another character needs to refer to the new character, for example, they probably will need a name.

And do characters need second names (surnames or family names)? My minor characters are actually more likely to have second names than the more important secondary characters. This is again because another character has referred to them in a context where it’s natural to use both names. Plenty of my secondary characters never get second names, simply because they never became necessary – including Marcus and Eric, Scott, Wynter’s foster sister Madeline, Frankie from the music store, Dusk and many other girlfriends and bandmates.

When adding a new character, the first thing I do (unless I already have a name in mind) is work out the birth year and look up the most popular names for that year. There are many sites that give this information (using census data for the US). For example, here’s babycenter’s list for 2000, giving the top 200 girls’ and boys’ names. This is useful for walk-on characters when I don’t want a particularly memorable name, or when the background of the character suggests the parents would’ve picked a popular or conventional name.

If the character has a non-Anglo background, there are plenty of lists giving name suggestions online. Other resources:

It pays to be cautious about trendy names, though. Some are too new to be relevant to adult characters.

Recently I counted up how many names I’d used starting with each letter, and compared this to a list of the most common initials, to see which initials I’d overused and underused. I discovered I had too many S, C, R and T names, and not enough A, J, E, K, I and O names. It gets a little more complicated, though, because I have several major characters with J names (Jesse, Joy, Jenny), so I definitely don’t need more. Whereas I only have one “major” S and R character in recent books, so I could choose S or R for my new character.

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