StanleyYelnats. Dreadful Spiller. The Artful Dodger. Lemony Snicket. Ebenezer Scrooge. Arwen Undomiel. Atreyu. Ender Wiggin. Their names are sealed in our hearts forever. So how do we find names for our own characters that have the same staying power?
Baby Name Books
Yes, people actually buy entire books to help them name the two or three children they will have. And then they give the books to used book stores where us hardcore namers can pick them up for half price. These books have lists of first names with meanings, and often etymology, associations in popular culture, and Most Popular lists. There are also several websites that do the same thing. This one, for instance. Or this one, which has popular names from a variety of countries.
Yes! Printed phone books still have a purpose! The residential white pages offer a plethora of options for last names. So if you don’t want all your characters named Smith or Jones or Garcia or Nguyen, pull a real phone book out of the paper recycling and stash it on your bookshelf. Any old edition will do (YellowPages.com isn’t exactly browse-able).
If your story takes place in a fictional world that presumably speaks a different language, pick up a couple of translation dictionaries in some languages that strike your fancy. Then find a cool sounding word, and change the letters around until it sounds right for your made-up culture. This can work for first and last names.
If you want to get a little more whimsical, play around with some synonyms. This often works best for nicknames, but there are no rules.
There are tons of cool names in the Bible—and not just the obvious ones like Adam, Abraham, Sarah, and David. Ishmael is a Bible name. Or there’s Nimrod, Mor’decai, and Eleazar. Start in Genesis 4-5, 10-11 for some good lists, and flip around at your leisure for more.
Choose Different Initials
Characters named Mark and Matt and Mary and Molly can confuse your readers pretty quickly. Make sure to choose names with a variety of first letters to help your readers keep characters straight. Sometimes, however, giving siblings or other family members similar names helps readers to remember how they relate to each other (like Fili and Kili and Oin and Gloin and so on).
Choose for Phonaesthetics
Phonaesthetics refers to the beauty or ugliness of words based on the way they sound, not on their meaning (for instance, beauty and pulchritude are synonyms, but the former is far more phonaesthetically pleasing than the latter). Giving an evil villain an ugly name, or your hero a noble-sounding name, or your comic relief a name that’s fun to say can make those names stick in your readers’ heads.
What are some of your favorite character names—read or written?