When I write my stories, I need to know the characters I’m dealing with. I can permit their personalities to develop during the course of writing, but I must know their names. I can start by writing, “Then X crossed to the window and spotted Y doing something unnatural with a tennis racquet.” But before I can go much further, I will have to stop and name both X and Y. The names help to shape the story. If X is Ralph and Y is Aloysius, we will have a very different story than if X were to be Rajit and Y were to be Miyuki.
There are probably more ways to determine a character’s name than there are writers. I search until I find a name that feels right. I start with whatever names might be lurking in my head and then go to a baby name book and then head online to any number of name sites. I look at the meanings of names, although I don’t (or haven’t) made those meanings part of the narrative. In my story Time in a Bottle, I hunted for names for ten minutes or so. I eventually came across Horacio, which means “timekeeper” in Spanish. In the context of the story, this seems appropriate. Benjamin, according to one source, means something sorrowful … but I forget exactly and don’t remember where I found that definition. It’s not important to the story; what I needed was a reasonably common North American name.
One block I have is using the name of someone I know. The more people I know, the more names I feel funny about using. Aunt Margaret in The Weapon was originally named Aunt Doris. Then I remembered a woman in the church I grew up in who was named Doris and for whom my character would be an unflattering comparison. The Doris I knew has passed on and there was utterly no connection between her and my character. Nevertheless, as I couldn’t think of anyone I know named Margaret, that’s who my character became. This is not a neurosis other writers need to adopt. I realized halfway through the story that I know a couple of Erics, but this was a decent character and was irrevocably Eric to me by then.
Some writers specifically use the names of people they know. Harlan Ellison has famously written that he uses the names of those who made his life hell when he was growing up and kills them in inventive ways in his stories. This is, by and large, perfectly legal (although it’s safer these days not to wholesale use someone’s name). No one owns his own name and names can’t be copyrighted. That’s why women named Sarah Marshall couldn’t do anything but fume about the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. There are five Bryon Cannons in the United States with that quirky spelling. So says the Census Bureau’s How Many of Me page. Look up your own name to see how many of you there are.
There’s another great use of that page. If you come up with a character name and check it there and find only one person, it’s best not to use the name. John Smith is a safer name to use, especially for a villain, than Arnold Pepperpot; there is one or fewer of those, and he might feel sufficiently annoyed by your using his name as your chainsaw-wielding murderer to sue. Hollywood checks for this sort of thing before the cameras roll.
I mentioned that names can’t be copyrighted, but in some circumstances they can be trademarked. I am not a lawyer, but I would offer the friendly recommendation that you not try to write a story with a character named Harry Potter. Or James Bond. Or James Kirk.
You can pull names from phone books or motion picture credits or the bibliography of a book or the biography section of a dictionary. Mix and match. Also, there are plenty of name sites and name generators; Google is your friend. Here is a very short list of sites I’ve used regularly:
Finally, one quite interesting site is the names database at Mongabay.com. Here you can find names alphabetically, by popularity, by year, or by state. Want to know what the popular names were in 1910? This is the place to find out. It’s useful in leading a writer to name a woman born during the Roaring Twenties Helen rather than Britni.
(Sadly, none of these sites I’ve linked to have paid me for inclusion here. It’s all gratis, I’m afraid.)
Devyani Borade has a good article at the Writer’s Digest website about naming characters. And Orson Scott Card has a short Q&A at his site on names. His third point is important. I, a writer in the heartland of the United States, must remember my audience. A native of Estonia writing for others in that general region has to keep his audience in mind. The naming conventions will not be the same.
Humans are a naming species. We want everything to have a name and for that name to somehow fit what it’s attached to. Giving a character a name that doesn’t fit can be a terrible impediment for your reader and might mean the difference between a story read and a story tossed aside.