What do you do when you're stumped for creative character names—when you're looking for something different, something other than Kathy, Samantha, or any of list of gender-neutral names that have already been used? Look around you. Names can be found everywhere, even in places you might not think to look.
While driving down that busy interstate, take a look at the trucks you pass. They tout things like Barrington Foods, Castleberry Delivery Services, MacTarnahan's Scottish Ale. Great last names, aren't they? Sometimes, the truck cabs advertise the point of origin of the driver. I've seen places like Felicity, Eljabel, and Ladonia and thought what great first names they would make for characters. When you see such place names, try them out. They might just fit a character for your novel or short story. Along those same lines, I recently came across an advertisement in a local PBS listings guide for a program that would be featuring a young pianist. Her first name is Vienna. "What an interesting character name," I thought.
Ideas are everywhere, even on billboards and company phone lists. The phone book is a big distraction for me. I take little neighborhood detours when my fingers do the walking through the yellow pages. I find myself playing with the names of people, businesses, towns I see advertised—so many potentially wonderful character names. It's no wonder that it takes me a long time to look up a phone number!
One day not too long ago, spam e-mail proved to be another source of interesting names. The message in my inbox peddled a book-promotion site. The company offers to work as a publicist for subscribers. Curiosity got the best of me. I had to find out what authors were listed, whether gay or straight. None were recognizable, of course, but I got some great ideas for character names. Someone by the name of Uslander was listed. It sounded to me like a last name that someone in a sci-fi novel might have. Then I came across the name Naomi Rose. Instantly, I pictured a gum-snapping, hip-tilting, "kiss my grits" kind of woman. She'd be a great character in any type of novel—detective or romance particularly come to mind.
Street and highway signs are another great source. I've even seen some great ideas on vanity license plates, believe it or not! Business signs, those flyers stuck to your front windshield, anything with words on them all have potential to yield a prize character name.
Or how about screen credits that run after every movie and every TV program? Pay attention not just to the actors, but also to the auxiliary people who contributed to the finished product. The diversity of names is enriched further by movies that are filmed in foreign countries.
In addition, I have a few favorite websites that I like to use when searching for character names. They've been especially helpful in finding names that are not contemporary or those with particular ethnic origins. Sometimes the meaning of the name evokes a whole character study—or these sites help in finding a name that fits an already conceived character. One of my favorites is:
This site lists first names by topics, such as African, Anglo-Saxon, Aurthurian legend, through Yiddish. Once you've selected a topical heading, you may select "girls' names" or "boys' names" or you can go directly to a particular name using the site search engine. Click on the "surnames" link, and you'll be taken to:
Clicking on a letter of the alphabet takes you to a list of last names with links to genealogy. Most of those links go to subscription sites, but the list page itself can be very useful in finding a last name for your character.
Another favorite names website is:
From this site's front page, you can select the "Baby Names" tab and go right to lists of both male and female names in alphabetical order. They also include the origin of the name and a meaning. You can opt for just female or just male names by using the search feature halfway down the front page and selecting "girl" or "boy."
One useful feature of this site is that you can create your own "shortlist" of names—names that you select that are of interest to you—and you can refer to the list you create again and again.
As an aside, here is another useful website:
This is a list of U.S. cities from every state. If you click on a city of interest, you get a synopsis of the city stats and a link to the city history. This has great potential for novel locations and for character names, too.
Hopefully, these ideas will get you started when you're stumped for a character name—or they may help you create a list of potential character names that you can refer to whenever you need one.
Next month—What to do with writer's block.
©2005 Anna Furtado — Author of The Heart's Desire
Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles
Finalist — Golden Crown Literary Society "Goldie" Award 2005
Distributed by: Starcrossed Productions (www.scp-inc.biz)
Web site: http://www.annafurtado.com