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Writers: 10 Great Ways to Find Character Names

ShakespeareFinding and storing character names can be a fun yet fruitful way to spend some downtime. I use index cards to capture great names. Each card is dedicated to one letter—with one side listing first names, and the other side listing last names. I lump female and male names together since many can be interchangeable, but you could certainly have separate index cards for males and females. I then store the index cards (alphabetized) in a clear, quart-size Ziploc bag. Not only will the plastic protect the names from spills, smudges and muddy cat paws (you know what I’m talking about!), but it also provides portability so you can take them with you in your purse, briefcase, backpack, diaper bag—or right on the couch as you’re watching TV.

Without further ado, here’s ten ways and places and I’ve mined for great character names. I hope you find my list helpful!

1. TV/Movie Credits – My number one favorite way to find character names is via movie and TV credits! You know, those long lists naming the principle actors, casting directors, hairstylists, assistants, producers, propmasters, key grips and so on. If you’re looking for British names, look through the credits of shows like Poirot, Downton Abbey or Wallace and Gromit. Cartoons, anime and CGI movies/shows usually feature a plethora of Asiatic names in the artistic departments. Shows/movies filmed in Canada often have lots of French surnames. Unusual or old-fashioned names can often be found in the credits from movies/shows ranging from the 1930s-1970s. The credits from ABC’s Once Upon a Time filmed in both the U.S. and Canada, has a whole host of interesting, culturally-diverse names.

2. Public Spaces – Names are posted literally everywhere—bulletin boards, breakrooms, posters, marquees, billboards, you name it. Employee of the Month, missing person flyers, military honorees are often found on the walls of Wal-Mart, grocery stores and other shops.

3. Phone Book – Arguably the mother lode, if you don’t mind wading through thousands of names, you’ll likely find some suitable character names in your local phone book. Even better if you can get your hands on ones from other towns, states and even countries (for variety’s sake).

4. Name Books – Often consulted for baby names, but also for other moniker uses, name books are a treasure trove for fiction writers. My favorite catch-all name book is Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names by K.M. Sheard, but you can also acquire books on African names, Chinese names, Welsh names, Magickal names, baby names using numerology, British surnames, Yiddish names, Cornish names, Irish names, Armenian names, Arabic names, Russian names and more.

5. Magazines and Newspapers – Bylines, editorial lists, quoted experts, pundits, criminals, political leaders—even ads and classifieds—magazines and newspapers burst with names of all sorts.

6. Books – When it comes to both non-fiction and fiction books, you’ll find lots of fascinating names in—of all places—the Acknowledgements section. That’s right: all those relatives, friends, colleagues and publisher’s employers—thanked to high heaven—offer dozens of catchy names for the sharp eye. With non-fiction, you’ll find additional names in cited sources and bibliographies. And, don’t forget that you can use author names, as well as combinations of fictional character names, too! (Just don’t rip off entire names, which goes without saying.) And what about encyclopedias, dictionaries and Who’s Who directories? Names galore!

7. Houses of Worship – Church bulletins, cookbooks, photo yearbooks—houses of worship often publish weekly, monthly or annual newsletters, announcement flyers, fundraising cookbooks, prayer lists and get-to-know-you photobooks. What great ways to find some cool names!

8. Mythology, Fairytales and Sacred Texts – From Greek mythology to the Bible, Hindu scriptures to Norse legends, cultural and symbolic names derived from these texts permeate literature—and we, too, can borrow from these rich sources when naming our characters.

9. Genealogy and Family Papers – Recently, one of my distant cousins did some extensive genealogical research—and shared her findings via a 20-page print-out that she distributed during a family reunion. Hundreds and hundreds of names were listed, not only revealing hidden family history gems, but also providing unusual ancestral names for fiction use. Some family members love to hoard letters, bills, pamphlets, newspaper announcements and other papers with sentimental value. Ask one of your older relatives if she has any saved papers from family members (sometimes, these are found in a huge, old family Bible)—or raid your grandma’s dusty attic (with her permission!). You never know what intriguing names you’ll come across in the process.

10. Everyday Conversations – Whether it’s your husband telling of crazy co-worker antics, Mom relating neighborhood gossip, your kids talking to their friends or an old school chum sharing “remember when….?” tales, name-dropping often occurs in such situations. Sometimes, you can even catch wind of an awesome name just by “accidentally” eavesdropping at the coffee shop, post office or hair salon. Just make sure you have a notebook with you at all times to jot them down before they vaporize! Or, better yet, that plastic bag filled with index cards dedicated to character names…

-- Janet

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