Wednesday, February 22, 2012

7 Tips for Naming Characters

A writer emailed me and asked, "I was wondering if you could write a post about naming characters... I know it seems basic, but often I can't find the "perfect" name for my character! If you have any tips that would be great!"

When I'm naming characters, I spend a lot of time on BabyNames.com or flipping through the baby names book on my shelf. And many writers I know keep lists of names they like, which is a great idea. Something I should really do...

As you search for the right names, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Go with your gut. When I was writing the Skylar series, I had someone criticize the name choice of "Eli" saying it sounded too Amish. But I knew this character's name was Eli. And that it was a fabulous name and didn't need to be changed.

Oddly, Sarah Dessen's Along for the Ride came out the same summer as Me, Just Different. Her primary male character's name was Eli. She hit the NYT bestsellers list just fine.

2. If the meaning of the name lines up, great. If not, don't sweat it. I don't have the blessing of loving names that have cool meanings. My son is named Connor, which unfortunately means "wolf lover." Hmm.

On the flip side, during the naming process, my husband fell in love with a boy's name that means Lion for God. Unfortunately, that name is Ariel. Works great if you live in Israel. Otherwise, Ariel is a girl's name. A girl who has a tail and red hair.

Best case scenario, of course, your character would have a name you love with a meaning that fits him or her perfectly. Not always possible, though.

3. Avoid funky spellings. We had friends whose daughter's name was pronounced Shae-Lee but spelled Shaealea. Way too complicated for a character. And don't make Tiffany Tiphanie or Ashley Asschlee. In short - don't make life hard on your readers.

Sci-Fi and fantasy writers get a pass on this (kind of). Even though they have the ability to be more "out there" with their names, I still think it's best to pick names people can at least pronounce. (Frodo, Bilbo, Katniss, Prim, etc.) When your readers are arguing about which "team" they're on, it'd be best if they could agree on how to pronounce it, and if they could spell it without having to double and triple check it. (That being said, I get lots of mail from readers saying how much they loved my characters "Skyler" and "Conner." Sigh.)


4. Pay attention to other books in your genre. If you write YA or paranormal, I'm sorry but the names Bella, Edward, Jacob, Carlisle, Esme, Alice, Rosalie, and Jasper are all off limits.

5. If you write historicals, make sure your names work for the time period and location. A great resource for this is the Social Security site which lists names from as far back as 1880 or so. It's really easy to search, just plug in a year, choose how many you want to see, and both male and female will pop up.

If we're talking years other than this or not American, my historical writer friend Roseanna White suggests doing census searches.

6. Beware of names that are too similar, especially with your main character's friends. They should not only start with different letters, they should be different lengths as well. Amy and Jan don't work. Amy and Jacquelyn would be fine.

7. Last names. The only advice I have for these is to hang onto any lists of those that you receive. When you go to graduations or plays, hang on to the bulletin they give you. I attended a private high school, which means I receive long lists of people who donate to the school each year. I save those.

I try to find something that works well with my character's first name and heritage, and I try to keep it from being anything too distracting or tricky to pronounce.

Anyone have tips they'd like to add? Or name resources they love?




73 comments:

  1. I write fantasy, and I sometimes two names I like and combine them (like Jenna+Emma=Jemma.) Or I'll take a name I like and change it a little bit (like Mark to Markly, Elizabeth to Elzbith, Mike to Miken and Marrian to Marrin.)
    Sometimes I just make up names and then spell them phonetically (like Roxallya.) Or sometimes I come up with a nick-name I like and then make the name out of that ( I knew I wanted his nickname to be Jam so I named him Jameand.)
    Thanks for the great post, Stephanie!
    ~Sarah F.

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  2. For surnames, I've found Behind the Name: Surnames to be a helpful site. (http://surnames.behindthename.com) Their list isn't huge, but the way it's separated by nationality is nice.

    Interestingly enough, Stephanie, my brother's name is Ariel. He used to be teased quite a lot about it, but not as much now that he is an adult. (He also predates the Disney mermaid, though, so my parents didn't take that into consideration when they named him.)

    Excellent post! I enjoyed reading your tips.

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    1. Abigail, pre-Little Mermaid is TOTALLY understandable. Had there been no movie, my son very well may have been named Ariel. It's a great name with a very cool meaning. These days, so many boy names get commandeered for girls. Cameron, Riley, etc. It's impossible to predict. So sorry your brother was teased :(

      And thank you for the surname site! Great resource!

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    2. I am adding that site to my Writers Links! :) That is very helpful; thanks for sharing <3

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  3. In most cases, I already have a name in mind and the story buds out from there, so I don't usually have problems.

    I just pick names up wherever I go, make a list of them and then mix and match. Another thing I do is try to make sure it's not an overused name, like Jack. A lot of authors seem to like the name Jack... so none of my characters have that name. OR I would give him the full name, Jackson. ...okay, done with the Jack Rant xD

    Moving on!

    Other tactics I use are-

    1. Flipping through the baby book at high speeds and placing my finger on a random name. If it doesn't work, I go again.

    2. Choosing names by meaning. I find my characters strongest attribute and search based on that. Be it strength, beauty, princess, evil, bald (Calvin ;) that's a name for bald) or even sickly. Sometimes I even give them names that mean the opposite of what they are.

    3. Name Generators. If they aren't helpful, they are at least entertaining.

    4. Mythological or ancient names. Those are always the best for fantasy books! :D One of my characters are named after a Welsh river! With my own spin to the name of course because a) I didn't know how to pronounce the original name and b) it was too long.

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    1. RandomThinker, YES, I used to think, "What is the deal with JACK?" MC on 24, MC on Lost, MC of the Jack Ryan novels, etc. And then (I don't know how this happened) I decided I kinda liked the name. There's a boy named Jack in my daughters preschool class and he's pretty stinking cute. So I would think, "Huh, Jack. That's actually not a bad name. Really, it's pretty cute." And then it grew on me SO much that one of my characters turned into Jack. And now I'm like, "Honey, if we had another boy, what do you think of the name Jack...?"

      Okay, Jack monologue over. I just thought it was funny that I had the EXACT same thought as you (overused, and WHY???) and now I'm a Jack convert. But, yeah, Jackson is a great name too and more unique.

      Love your other tips too! So creative! Thanks for sharing.

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    2. Jack is such a strong name! :D I love it. You think of a great good guy and you think, "Jack... heheheh yup!" Oh and you can't forget the Jack from Titanic.
      Thank you! :D

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    3. Ooh, I like the name "Jackson," but I was tired of the same old spelling, so I looked it up in my baby-names book. Turns out, there are about a million ways to spell it. They didn't have "Jaxin," but they had "Jaxen," so one of my SCs became Jaxen. I also used "Jaxin," and made the "x" sound like an "s," because I love the name "Jason" so much. So now Jaxin, pronounced "Jasin" is the love interest in one of my stories. :)

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    4. Sweet Jupiter! :) I love that spelling! :D Jaxin... Jaaaxxxiiinn. Mind if I borrow that one?

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    5. Haha . . . Go ahead. I love the spelling. It sounds kind of futuristicky, but not TOO "out-there." You know?

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    6. Oh, it's like John. I have two uncles named John. And there's a John in everything and their everywhere!! Sorry uncles and people named John, but I am supper sick of the name. ;P Although I think Jack is a cute name, but I'm going to try to keep it out of my novels. :)

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  4. I'll have to check out that first site...it looks like it might be fun to play around with for fun too :) Thanks for the tips, I sometimes forget that the names of a historical character might be "incorrect". I'm doing a Dystopia...so I don't think I need to be worried about that...right? But I can see your point with number 6. My main problem is getting the last names to stick. Anyone have a last name site??? I want something that is memorable (like Eustace Scrubb, Primrose Everdeen...) for my characters. Sierra
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

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    1. Sierra, I think you just have to play around with the last name until you get the effect you want. And I steal from people I know who have great last names. And yeah, dystopians are their own funny breed for names. Just go with what you think fits best. Abigail shared this site in her comment: http://surnames.behindthename.com

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    2. Thanks!!!!!!! Oh sound evil....stealing last names *wink* Sierra
      Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

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    3. Lol. In my experience, they're flattered. When I tell them :)

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    4. I don't tell any one. They might be flattered at first but when they get to know the "their" character, they would realize how different they actually are. And then they would probably change their mind and be insulted instead.

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    5. True! And if it is the perfect bad guys name....ermmm...awkward. And if I am kinda basing a character off of someone I don't feel like I should tell them.... It is a tough situation! I guess it depends on the person. Sierra
      Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

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  5. Ha, my friend is writing a fantasy book and her MC's name is Arial because of its name. I told her I couldn't get the mermaid picture out of my head.

    I struggled with last names. I went through my story and wrote down every name I used. And for the last names that sounded to much alike I looked up just I list of last names. I went through the list and picked out the ones I could read : )

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    1. Oh, also for first names it's usually names I like. My MC name I just loved. I was afraid it was going to sound like a boy name but because of the way I spell it, it looks like a girls name. Its "Erynn". Nice and pretty looking.

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    2. It's a very pretty spelling, and not so uncommon that it'll freak out the reader. Kind of like our Ellyn Gibbs who hangs out here on Go Teen Writers. I LOVE how her parents chose to spell Ellyn!

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    3. That is a really pretty way to spell it. I've had some trouble with last names too :( Sierra
      Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

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  6. I always have a hard time naming my characters, but once I "find" a name for them, I can't change it. It just fits them so well it couldn't be any other name. I've tried changing character names before. I had this character named Jesse and since that's not my favorite name I was looking for something else. But no matter what I tried it just wasn't right. So he stayed Jesse.

    I try to keep traditional or common name spellings. As a reader, I prefer when characters have names I can pronounce.

    Thanks Mrs. Morrill!!

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    1. Oh, I've had that happen too! And the opposite - where I really want my main character to be named something, but it's just not jiving with the story for whatever reason. My daughter inspired a character of mine, so I wanted to name the character Noelle (which is McKenna's middle name.) Well, it just didn't work. Didn't feel right. The characters name was clearly supposed to be "Madeline" so I had to give in and name her Madeline Noelle instead. (That paragraph makes me sound like I have a few loose screws, but I figure I'm in the company of fellow writers. You guys get it, right?)

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    2. I know what you mean, 4readin. It doesn't happen often, but I'm really not a fan of it when it does.
      I've only ever changed a character's name successfully once, and that took a while to get used to.

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    3. It's good to know that I'm not the only person out there with these problems. I think that non-writers can't understand this type of thing. They're more like, "If you want then change the name!" But it doesn't work that way. I think some can't relateto that.

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    4. I can definitely relate. Every time I change my characters' names, their personalities immediately change as well, and when you can't have that, well, you can't have the name change, no matter how good the reasons are. :)

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    5. Oh, my goodness! Noelle! That's beautiful! And her initials are M N M. Love it.

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    6. It's hard for me too because sometimes I have to change names. I often base my characters on real life people--close friends, casual friends, family members, other classmates and aquaintences, etc. When I begin the story, they are a lot alike. Same (or similair)names, similiar appearence, mannerisms, way of speaking, family structure friends, personality...you get the picture. Sometimes they're so much alike it's scary. Of course, the more I develop the story, the more the real person and my character seperate and my characters develop and change from who they were originally based after. They always change drastically. But if I were to ever let anyone read these that knew those people...I could run into some embarassing moments. Like when my MC has guy friend or if two characters get married or engaged or something... I might get looks like, "You thought that person is great?" or "That's what you think about that person?" when I don't think that, but my MC does think that and has those emotions for that guy. So, to protect the innocent people I use to base characters after in my book, to keep some awkward moments happening, and to save both of us from a ton of embarrassment, I am forced to change some things.

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  7. I don't think I've ever really had to look for a name for the character...I do it the other way around. ;) Usually I think of the name first and have to go hunting for the character that fits it.
    I do love my baby naming book, though...sometimes I read it just for fun.

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    1. I'm with you on this, Olivia! ;) I come up with names all the time and then have to come up with characters to fit them.

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    2. I like coming up with names first too :) Sierra
      Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

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    3. Olivia, I READ MY BABY NAME BOOK FOR FUN, TOO!!!! :D!!!!!

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  8. Thanks for the tips! Behind the name is a great resource for both surnames and last names. I also randomly flip through the phone book to find last names. I actually kept last year's to use as a resource :). I found a baby naming book last Christmas and it's one of my favorite naming resources.
    I like babynamesgarden.com for first names (http://www.babynamesgarden.com/index.aspx) They have the top thousand for the past couple years, and it's fun to pick a number between 1 and 1000 and see what the name is.
    For historical names, I like the given names frequency project. (http://www.galbithink.org/names/agnames.htm) I'm not sure it's entirely accurate, but really interesting.
    Also, I found surnames statistics here: http://names.mongabay.com/data/1000.html also very interesting.
    Well, that's a lot of links.

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    1. Oh Yes! The phone book!

      I read that the creators of Adventures in Oddesey searched the phone book for Whit's name. From the beginning. Yep, it was a long search to find John Avery Whittaker in the Ws!

      Jordan

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    2. I heard that too. I love Adventures in Oddesey!! The writers should have just started in the back of the book. :)

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  9. Once I made a list of 52 names - 26 female and 26 male. Each started with a different letter of the alphabet. That way, when I added a minor charater as I wrote my story, I could just pull another name from the list and not have to worry that it was too close to someone else's name in the story.

    Jordan

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  10. I also usually have a name in mind for my MC. It's the secondary characters I have a hard time with. For instance, when I started my WIP, Unrestrained, I knew that my MC was going to be Jenna Walker, and her step brother was going to be Ryan Berrings. (Eventually he became my MC, but that's beside the point.) I also knew that one of their friends was going to be Callianna Westford, because she was a character that my sister came up with that I wanted to use really badly. For name sources, I have an extremely marked-up baby names book, and I'm constantly looking through it, looking for names that I might want to use in the future. (Sadly, Callianna is not in it. :( )

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    1. I have trouble with secondary characters too >.< usually I name them something funny, the first thing that pops into my head, or the first thing that I see on the computer or around me OR the singer on the radio station. Like my Villain's cousin- Herb Spats. His full name is Herbert Lester Spats.

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    2. BAHAHAHAHAHA . . . I LOVE THAT NAME!!!!

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  11. When I'm writing about something based on a personal experience, I take the first letter of the real person's name and use it as the start for the character!

    Telephone books are also really great for finding last names.

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    1. I have a hard time with last names too. Sometimes I do the common last name search.

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    2. What I often do is make a hybrid of last names. For instance, I once had a character whose last name was "Hawkinson." It was a twist on my (at that time) favorite character's last name. "Jim Hawkins." :D

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    3. Jim Hawkins.... Treasure Island. Right?
      I know this is like a year late, but I just had to say that. ;)

      ~ Katelyn~

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  12. Naming is one of the most fun things about writing, but it can be hard.

    Generally, I build my stories around my characters, but in my novel, I didn't name my MC or his best friend for about six months. They went by "the boy" and "E." They're now Arlis and Eric, but I still sometimes refer to Eric as E, just for fun.

    Tip #1: Make it pronounceable, even in fantasy. Your typical reader will ignore someone named Zya'okldaraan, no matter how important you want him to be.

    Tip #2: If it's modern-day fiction, don't be too exotic. If you have too many characters named stuff like Secret, Waverly, and Zii, your story won't be believable.

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    1. Your second tip reminds me of an awful book I tried to read once. It had an MC named Ever (Who names their kid that???) And minor characters with yucky names like Honor and Stacia. For people! Come on!! The author was trying too hard to be original.

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    2. Allison, funny you should bring up letters. I have one character whose older brother's name is Josh, and she has a younger sister whose name is Liana. Her name used to be Jenna, but then I realized that I had too many J's in my book, so I started looking for another name for her. I finally decided on just plain "K." It's perfect, actually, because she can be K the whole book, and then I can find a name for her, and we can find out she's embarrassed of her name, so she goes by "K." Ugh, sorry, I ramble. :D

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    3. I do that too. I might do that when know my MC has three bothers but I've only named one of them and can't find the right names for the other two brothers, I'll give them a letter or number or something until I find the right thing.

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    4. Becki, I thought about just leaving him as E ... but I couldn't figure out a way to pull it off. Yours is so cool!

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  13. I write fantasy, so I usually make up a name off the top of my head (Which sometimes works, and other times doesn't). As for last names, since it's fantasy, I'm not always sure about last names. Sometimes I have middle/last names that work well (Bethclaire Alysse)...but most of my secondary characters just don't have last names.

    I went through a baby naming book and copied off all the names I liked. But then I always took it off the A page...thankfully, I've stopped that :)

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    1. P.S.

      My brother and I used to sit around and make names up...I've never gotten around to using them (Although, some of them are definitely catchy). For some reason, I really like Archaea E. Coli (Though, it would have to be in a Fantasy book, so the character wouldn't be teased to death about it ;), Gillian Spark, etc. As I said, sometimes you just find a name that 'clicks'.

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    2. haha, I thought I was the only one who did that. Im writing a fantasy also! A few names that I have are Oreamnos, Prystal, Daelinor, and Gryphus.

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  14. I use babynames all the time, partly because I have a pregnant relative with a name picked out that I don't really like. I looked up names with the meaning of evil and I got a name from there that I adore for this very evil character.
    Also, I have a niece named Ariel so I think of her when I hear that name.

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  15. I had a complete description of my main character girl before I thought of a name for her. However, based on her personality and appearance, I knew, somehow, that her name started with "M". I also knew my story was a fantasy, so I'd have to make up a name.
    So I looked through baby name websites, and lists of ancient Greek, Roman, and Gaelic names, searching the "M"s for something that sounded right. Finally, while brushing my teeth one night, I started putting syllables together different ways, and suddenly, I came up with "Mahlia". I loved it, my little sister (Allison Young) loved it, and it suited Mahlia wonderfully.
    Something similar happened with my MC man. I knew he started with "D". (I actually wrote a whole scene calling him only "D".) Then, on the baby names website, I found the name "Davien". It was perfect.
    <><

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  16. One thing I always end up doing with names is using the first thing that pops into my head. The issue with that is that sometimes its the name of a friend of mine or sometimes someone who I really don't like. I write fantasy, so what I do normally is look at this list of unique baby girl names (almost all of my main characters are girls for some reason) and use something I think will fit. I am using Ariel as my Main Character right now, and my friend (look up to see Princesses comment) thinks of the mermaid every time. Im trying to have a totally oppisite personality for my character, so that they will be different, but for some stupid reason I originally envisioned her with red hair. So now I have a red-headed character named Ariel. Go figure.

    Thanks for the great post! One thing to always remember with picking names is go with one of your first ideas, 'cause if you anything like me thats the one you'll end up going with.

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  17. Oh, boy, I think I've misspelled SkylAr and ConnOr in emails to you. Sooooo sorry.

    *cough* On a lighter note, fabulous post! :)

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    1. I find I do that a lot. I'll send a message or something to later realize that I really spelled it wrong or used the wrong word tense or had incorrect grammer usage. I'm always irritated with myself when I do that.

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  18. There are a few random name generating websites that even give you last names! :D I use: http://thenamegenerator.com/ all the time, because you can choose stuff like what letter it should start with, etc. Otherwise, my family (mostly my brother) functions as my random name providers if I can't come up with one on my own. "Quick! Give me a female name!" "What?! Uh, Ashley?" "Too mainstream!" "Uh, Penelope?" "PERFECT!"

    Yeah, some of my characters seem to have names before I even think about it. I never remember choosing that name, and it's like it's always been there. Like, this one (secondary) character of mine has always been Cecelia. I have no idea where it came from, but it just feels right. Another secondary character, however, still hasn't got a name. Nothing feels right. I might just have to duct tape a few pages of baby names to a dartboard and see what happens...

    ~Jessica Staricka

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  19. Oh gosh, just thought to mention this: my NaNoWrMo novel had a male main character whose name is Gerome. O.o Yep. Jerome, with a G. Gerome. There was an explanation, but not really a purpose. But I kind of like it. It's quirky and...starts with a G.(Please note that some of my other favorite males names are Gerard, Guy, Geoffrey, Grant...)

    ~Jessica Staricka

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  20. I get my baby names from the Nickelodeon Parents Connect name site.

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    1. If you just search a name meaning or a type of name (like Hawaiian names, French names) an incredible amount of name sites will come up. I'm always amazed by how many there are, no matter how many times I search names.

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  21. I love coming up with names! One of the best parts of writing. :) For last names, I cheat and look at phone books and directories until I find something interesting. Old people often seem to have the best last names, so sometimes when watching that segment on the Today show where they celebrate monumental birthdays, I'll have to grab a pen and jot down some of the funny last names to use. :)

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    1. I agree I love names!! My problem is that it can be so hard sometimes.
      If I'm having this much trouble naming my fictional characters, how how long and how much trouble will I have naming my children?? At least I won't have to search for a last name. :)

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    2. Great idea, Rachel! I love those 100+ year birthdays. Especially the bios of the people. They just make me smile :)

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  22. Try the "Character Naming Sourcebook" by Sherrilyn Kenyon. It has thousands of name divided into 45 nationalities--everything from Hebrew to Authurian Legent to Native American--and most of them include surnames at the beginning of the chapter). It also has an index that lists names by their meanings and a list of the top 10 most popular US boy and girl names for each year back to 1880.

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  23. I hate naming my characters! My work in progress has a name flaw: Liam and Luke are the protagonist and Antagonist, and two of Liam's friends are Mike and Mat. I want to change it, but the names fit the character SO WELL! I can probably change Luke to something different and Mat to Matthew, I guess.

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  24. Look at street signs for good last name ideas. Patridge? Sherwood?

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  25. Hi, my name is kennedy. Im looking for tips on naming a book and making a format to follow. im twelve, and im still really new. i know how i want to end my book, because i accidentally started a sequel before the original. stephanie, do you have any advice for a greenhorn like me?

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  26. I like to look at the credits of movies and TV show to get last names for my characters. I don't always take a naem that I see on screen but it usually gives me some ideas.

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  27. Usually- random names from my random head, lol. Im writing a fantasy, so: FMC- Prystal. MMC- Roan. Lady Miluiel came from my name in Elvish. Zyndir- Prystal's sword- came from Zander. I like names that start or have in them Z's or Y's, So I took Zander and tweaked it a bit. Also, for my MMC's sword- Oreamnos- came from when I was in school and had to look at animals- so I looked at their species name, lol. Also Falco, Lewisia, and Ursus came from there too. Sorry for the long comment, hehe.

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