Character Names – sources of inspiration


I’m at that delicious beginning part of the writing process – when ideas are coming thick and fast, and the characters are lining up ready to take their turn in the next scene. So far it’s been deceptively easy, and while I know from experience that this is unlikely to last, I’m enjoying it while it does.

One of the exciting parts of starting a new project is naming the characters. This is such an important aspect of fiction and it’s so easy to cause yourself problems if you get it wrong. Similar sounding names, names that don’t fit the era or social status of your characters, or names that just don’t quite feel right to you can cause confusion and spoil the feel of your story.

So where do you get inspiration for names? Well, with first names, I have a couple of books designed for helping parents choose names for their offspring. These are quite good because they give a little background about the origins and meanings of each name which can be useful in choosing something appropriate.

Another incredibly useful source is the interactive graph compiled by The Office of National Statistics. This uses census data to track the popularity of first names over the last 110 years. It tracks the top 100 names from each year, so if you type a name into the box above the graph, it will display a line showing that name’s popularity over the whole period. The graph is also excellent for exploring ideas for a specific era. Say you happen to have a character who was born in 1920, but you’re not quite sure what kind of names were around at this time. You can hover over the imaginary line for 1920 and suggested names will appear. So if you want a very obviously popular name for the era, you hover near the top of the graph, for a less obvious name, hover near the bottom. Every time you move your mouse, you’ll find some more names, and can build up a feel for what is appropriate for that era.

When it comes to inspiration for surnames, back in the day I used the phone book, but I haven’t seen one of those for a while (and now I think about it, using the phone book might create a slight regional bias depending on where you live – which could be useful or not, depending on the nature of your fiction). Now, I use a Dictionary of Surnames which I found in a cut price book shop several years ago. Again it gives origins and meanings which is interesting, but mostly prevents me falling back on lame-sounding surnames from my own imagination (which is poor in this respect!) which make the characters feel obviously like characters, not real people.

If I’m really stuck for a name in the middle of a story and I don’t want to interrupt the flow, sometimes I just pop in “XXX” and use the find-and-replace-all function later when I’ve chosen something appropriate. On occasions this has worked better for me than picking a not-quite-appropriate name and attempting to replace that later as by then I am thinking of the character as this original name, and it may even have affected how I feel about them or how they develop in the story.

If you have any brilliant suggestions for the way you go about naming characters, or suggestions for other good “name” websites, please pop them in the comments below – but I’d definitely recommend having a look at the ONS graph when you’re deciding on names for your next project.


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