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How Do You Name Your Characters?

How Do You Name Your Characters?

I’m pregnant with my first child, and in only a few weeks my husband and I will find out whether it’s a girl or boy. I can’t wait. I think knowing the sex will make the whole thing feel more real to me, and I’m tired of referring to my unborn child as “it.”

Besides, it will help us narrow down the name choices!

My husband and I have a girl name we’re pretty happy with, but we haven’t been able to agree on a boy name. I went through the entire boy section of a baby name book and made a list of forty different names I like or would at least be okay with. Paul vetoed every single one of them. Of course, I vetoed all of his suggestions, too.

Paul is one hundred percent against my favorite boy name, Milo. He says it reminds him of Miley Cyrus. I say it’s like Milo from the Descendents, but he doesn’t care about eighties punk bands nearly as much as I do.

It makes me sad that we won’t name our son Milo, but at least it’s not my only naming opportunity. I’m a writer, so I get to name people all the time!

 

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The cover for the 1982 Descendents album, Milo Goes to College

 

Naming characters is a very interesting task, and I’m not sure I’m very good at it. Sometimes the name comes to me with the character as a fully formed package. But, more often than not, I have an idea for a character and then I have to figure out an appropriate name. I end up spending way too much time looking at baby name websites… not for my actual baby, mind you, but to find names for my characters.

I know I should put in a placeholder name and continue writing. Come back and decide on actual names for the characters later. But names are powerful and informative. (Like the Ursula LeGuin quote, “Who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping.”) Character names can often reveal age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and hint at a person’s childhood, their background. A character named Tatiana Baptiste is going to be an entirely different person than Sarah Miller. Often the name can inform the character.

But since I don’t like to disrupt the flow of my writing, I will sometimes pull from an internal list of stock names when I have a minor character who needs a quick name. A country farmer? I’ll name him Bill. A cute guy at school? Travis will do. A bitchy cheerleader?  Jessica.

Where I’ve been getting into trouble lately is that my internal list of stock names doesn’t quite work for the middle grade contemporary novel I’m currently writing. Because while the kids in my day were named Travis and Jessica, now middle schoolers are named Jack and Emma and Mateo and Mohammad. Names change with the times. If I’m writing a middle grade novel set in the present, I’m probably not going to name my characters Sally or Ethel either.

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What’s in a name?  A lot, actually.

 

And I haven’t even touched on the trouble of coming up with last names. Sometimes I try to think of my character’s background to help with the naming process. Is he Irish? His last name shall be O’Conner! Is she Indian? How about Patel! But I worry that’s too obvious. In the cultural mixing pot that is our world, last names aren’t so obvious anymore. I know a child who has a very German-sounding last name even though he’s half Mexican, and another child with a Taiwanese last name who is more Scottish in heritage than Asian. As for my own baby, he/she will have an Italian last name but be less than one-fourth Italian.

What I’m saying is, coming up with names is complicated. I’ve tried various online name generators, but I’ve been less than pleased with the results. At Name Generator , you put in a first name and get a random last name. When I tried it three times in a row I got: John Saetren, John Raposo, and John Wasowksa. I guess those are actual last names.

Fake Name Generator is a little better because you can choose an age range and the country of origin. But, when I searched for a twelve-year-old American girl name, the first option it gave me was Vicky P. Rickards, which I’m not crazy about.

Maybe the most fun one is the Character Name Generator. You can put in  ethnicity and the decade of the character’s birth, and not only do you get a name, you get a Myer’s Briggs type with a full personality description. When I asked for a Hispanic-American girl born in the 1990’s, I got Veronica Menendez, an ISTP.

And when all else fails, I go to my naming fall-back:  a nice stroll through the cemetery.  It’s a great way to pick up last names, at least.

What about you guys?  How do you name your characters?

I definitely don’t have it figured out, but I’m glad that, while I’ll only get the chance to name one or two babies (probably), I will have hundreds of characters in my lifetime who I get to name.  Don’t be surprised if I name one of them Milo.

 

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Baby on Board!  ETA:  February 4, 2017

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About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

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