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Try These Research Ideas for Naming Characters
Your Imaginary Friends Are Important
Romeo and Juliet Act 2 Scene 2
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Naming Your Characters is Serious Work
The right character name sets the tone for historic novels, speculative fiction stories, and can pay homage to a theme or evoke a collective social feeling.
Consider how these names invoke a feeling or memory and how those feelings connect with millions of people:
Barbie and Ken
As a creative, you spend quality time with your characters. The longer the story, the more real they become. Like children, name them well.
In my current novel on submission (send good thoughts it sells) my story world is Grand Isle, Louisiana. My characters are Southern and of Cajun descent.
Last Names First
A Google search “Cajun Last Names” produced a jackpot of results. I chose a site with the most names possible.
I wanted a name with a Cajun -aux ending. I also didn’t want an overly common name. I settled on Babineaux.
You can perform a similar search for any type of ethnic last name or names common in a specific geographic location. This type of search works for other countries as well.
“<insert country or region> last names”
“Common surnames <insert country or region>”
“Most popular last name <insert city>”
“Common <insert ethnicity> last name <insert country, region, state, etc.>”
This fun site from Reader’s Digest provides common last names by state.
Warning: Long lists can cause analysis paralysis. More is not always better if it slows your project. You can always change a name later.
I Dub Thee?
My character’s first names needed to be respectful of their cultural heritage, Southern settings, and memorable. But not all over-the-top.
Some of the Cast of Characters
Josephine “Josie” was named after a good friend’s mother who had recently died and who had been a chef like my main character.
Brian was chosen for its good guy, non-threatening sound, and has a pleasant alliteration to Babineaux.
Minnow – yes, like the fish and the doomed boat on Gilligan’s Island. Minnow originally was this character’s nickname, but I grew to love it and my beta readers had no problem with it as a first name.
Then I smashed into a blank name wall for three influential characters, Josie’s mother, father, and brother.
For weeks I tried different names and only used “mom”, “dad”, “brother” as I wrote.
Scaling the Wall
Southern names (mainly Caucasian names)
I know from marrying into a white Southern family, many people use their middle names instead of their first names. Add to this, some have double names. My mother-in-law provided me with a family name history that set my Northern-born head spinning.
I bought a subscription to Genealogy Bank, a site where users can search newspapers, census data, and archives. At first I was using it to read about the 2010 Gulf oil spill in the local Louisiana newspapers, this is the heart of my story. Then I decided to conduct a census search on the Babineaux family. I picked a random date -- magic happened. The results revealed Hugh Dean (there’s that double name) and Odeal, a name I had never seen before. Real names for my fictious Cajun family.
Hughdean became the brother, Odeal the mother, and following the double naming convention and my fondness for alliteration, the father became Daniel Dean. I returned to my original list of Cajun last names and chose Austin for this part of the family.
FYI : You can search US Census data from 1790-1950 online through the National Archives. You can also research the National Archives in Washington DC in person with an appointment. I’ll talk about archival research in a future newsletter.
Other Interesting Sources of Names?
Scrivener. This powerful writing program has a name generator. Check out this tutorial.
US Social Security Agency. This US federal agency will provide you with the most popular names in any year after 1879!
Baby Naming Sites. Of course, there are baby naming sites.
Behind the Name provides an extensive list of names for many cultures and the meanings and Biblical names.
Forebears a genealogy portal with interesting data on last names and more.
Subscription sites such as Genealogy Bank, Ancestry.Com, and Newspapers.com can offer up interesting names based on real people and stories.
Remember your local library as a source of baby naming books. Just browsing the stacks and looking at author’s first and last names can prove to be a character naming source of inspiration.
Final Thought. Remember Your Reader
As a creator, you decide what to call your people (pets too). Avoid naming characters with the same letter or sound. It’s difficult to keep Jesse, Janis, and Joshua separate or Kris and Christine. Each story has its own verbal tics and often when writers are at the beginning of the process, we gravitate to repetitive names and sounds.
If you’re naming a character from outside your ethnicity or culture, take a few moments and research names and spellings. This will add authenticity and ensure you are treating your characters and readers with respect.
How do you name your characters and is any of this helpful? I’d love to know.
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