How do I pick character names?

I’ve been asked many times where I get my characters’ names. Often, they just come to me. Sometimes I need to do a bit of research. For first names I often use a resource: A Treasury of Baby Names by Alan Benjamin, copywriter of 1983. (I originally purchased the book to help with a name project I used to do with my students; we would look up what their names meant.) I have used websites for popular names of decades or if I want need an ethnic name.

For surnames, I not only use common names in these parts (i.e.. Johnson, Nelson, Anderson), but names that strike me from television shows or movie credits, or even paper programs handed out at sporting events or performances.  I have been known to check out obituaries for surnames, as well. 

My main objective is to select a name which will fit the physical image I have of the character. I try to use names that have different beginning letters, so the characters names don’t all begin with K’s for example, so you’re being annoyed by Ken, Kerry, Kevin, Kirk, Kylie, Kathleen, Katie all appearing in the same novel. There have been occasions where I used same letter names purposefully, for example, Adam and Adriana in Silver’s Bones, so Cal can lament that his ex-girlfriend’s name begins with the same letter as her new husband’s.

The main character of my mystery series is Cal Sheehan. I wanted a first name which wasn’t common and one I liked because Cal is a likable character. When I grew up there was a family of Sheehans living in the next town, and I always like the sound of their last name. His name just came to me.

In my first novel, I purposefully neglected to use names of family and friends, mostly to protect their privacy. Except for Lake Emmaline. Emma is my granddaughter’s name. Then friends and family members alike started requesting I use their names. I warned them that my characters are often shady people who do evil things. Most said they didn’t care. Huh. So, although I can’t possibly fill all their requests, I’ve begun to allow myself to use names of people I know if their name fits a character I am imagining. I NEVER…I repeat…NEVER, EVER use real people I know in my books. If I have used a first name of someone I know, I never picture them as the character.  If I see a stranger in a public place that is interesting to me, I will use their look and make up a name to suit them. Malls are great places to discover such people. You see all kinds.

We humans are great fodder for the writer. We are full of flaws and shortcomings doing stupid mean things to each other, and yet at other times we are kind and generous. Our behavior is both predictable and unpredictable; our desires and goals can be honorable or dishonorable. If we were’t such an interesting species, we writers would have no material.


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