Tool Box: Top Ten Character Name Sources

Sometimes a character's name is the first thing I know about him or her. Some names are powerful enough to suggest an entire journey with their distinct melody, ethnicity, colloquial flavor, or historic connotations. Other times I end up changing names two or three or more times until the chemistry comes together. When I need a bit of help pondering, here's where I turn most often.

1) Junior League. Southern fiction begs for beautimous southern names, and signing books at a Junior League event a few years ago, I knew I'd hit the mother lode. Now when I speak at a JL function or fundraiser, I save the program, buy their cookbooks, collect their directories, and mix and match. (Denny and Woolrich Butterfield, India Fast-Langhouse, Sipsy MacKeever.)

2) Civil War archives. A wealth of rich southern grits 'n' gravy names. (Matthias Ayers, Thomas Arble, Boone Goodsell.)

3) Maps. Streets, cities, states, provinces. (Stella Link, Aldine Westfield, Dallas Brown.)

4) US presidents. Mix and match first, middle, and last names. (Ford Adams, Herbert Coolidge, Abe Hoover.)

5) Bartleby. Plug virtually any keyword into the search engine and stand back for a barrage of poets, politicians, authors, and historical figures. (Frank Acosta, Winston Foley, Jenny Rhodale.)

6) Google "surname". Under French, there's Aston and Pomeroy. Dutch offers Barculo and Vedder. Albanian, you say? How 'bout Petrela or Zogjani?

7) Cemetery directories. Hey, it worked for Spoon River Anthology, right?

8) Internet baby namers.

9) Rivers. I actually knew a guy named Zumbro, and I loved that. Niles, Tyne, and Platte work for me as well.

10) The good ol' phone book. In my previous incarnation as a disc jockey, Gary was helping me brainstorm an airname. Unable to come up with one I liked, he convinced me at the eleventh hour to open the phone book, point, and promise to use whatever name I landed on. I accidentally opened to the yellow pages, stuck my finger on "Veterans Administration Loans" -- and VA Lones was born.


LOL! I love these! So that's how you get all those cool and original names!

I often use the Houston residential pages for surnames. Then I go to the Social Security Admin's most popular baby names by year site at and type in the est. year of birth for my character and ask to see the most popular 500 baby names from that year.

Btw, I've gotten a lot of weird e-mails from people either excited or upset that I've given a character their name. (Some really take exception when it's a villain!) Apparently, they never Google and they imagine themselves unique. :)

Great post!
I've used phone books in the past, and I've also heard from readers who have my characters name. But if you need a hysterical laugh, you can't go wrong with this site on Bad Baby Names. And some of them, I actually *liked*!
Well, my URL got cut off. Lets try this again.

Bad Baby Names
Christie Craig said…

I always go look in the family tree my grandmother wrote up. Amazingly, there's some real doozers there. Bankhead, Silvania, Burnette. I've used several of those when I was writing historicals.

Suzan Harden said…
LOL - I had a judge mark off on my ms for mixing ancient Roman and ancient Greek names in the same family. (Even though the parents of the characters in question were a Roman general and the last Greek Pharoah of Egypt.)
In high school, two of my daughters dated a boy named Darth(not simultaneously, although nearly.) Yep, his parents named him after Darth Vader. His older sister was named "Star." LOL When I heard Darth and Star had younger twin sisters, I totally expected them to have hilarious names like R2D2 and 3CPO. However, the parents, really nice artsy people, must have second thoughts before the twins were born. The twins had normal names. Kinda disappointing, actually. :)
Julie Ortolon said…
Great ideas. Thanks! I agonize over character names, and hate that it eats up days and days of time when I could be writing, so I'm open to all the help I can get.

For ethnic last names, I recently discovered
Kathy Bacus said…
I keep a 'name' journal. When I hear an interesting or unique name, I make a note of it and jot it down in my name file. I first heard the name 'Tressa' many years ago (not to be confused with 'Tressy--the doll who 'grew' and 'ungrew' hair by means of a button on her belly and a key hole on her back respectively)as my cousin's best friend was named Tressa. I always remembered the name and liked it. When I came up with my 'Calamity Jayne' character, I knew her name had to be Tressa Jayne. I can't help but wonder if any of my readers will name their blonde baby girls Tressa...! :)

Lots of great suggestions. And I love the Bad Baby Names site, Katherine. It's a hoot!

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