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How to Find the Perfect Names for Your Characters

No matter what genre of fiction you write, be it horror like King or Lovecraft, crime like Patterson or Spillane, or more literary fare like Sontag, Roth, or Updike, there’s one very basic thing all fiction writers have in common—we love coming up with perfect place and character names, and we all (assuming you’re a fellow fiction writer) pull them from various sources.

I know some writers who seem to pull names of people, towns, rivers, roads, and ranches out of thin air, as if these fictional locales have always existed in the recesses of their minds. I can’t do that, and maybe you can’t either, so here are some ways I go about gathering names for the characters and places in my own books and stories.

The Book of Names

First of all, I suggest all writers get a fancy schmancy leather-bound notebook with a golden “The Book of Names” title written on the cover or spine. Something to make people who walk into your office and see it think it’s some sort of magical tome that predicts the fate of each and every creature who walks the earth, because in a sense, it is. Mine isn’t as fancy, just a beat-up spiral pad with the above title written in sharpie on the cover. Awe inspiring it is not, yet powerful it remains.

Road Trippin’

When I go on road trips, I take a pad and pen along, just like every other writer who has ever existed. I love the names of small towns, of valleys, and historical regions, and they all go into my Book of Names. The first time I did this as a young teenager, I felt as if I had stumbled upon a mine filled with diamonds. Just look at the place names I picked up on a drive from San Antonio to Corpus Christie, Texas: Castle Hills, Braunig Park, Poteet, Jim Brite Road, Whitsett, Choke Canyon, Three Rivers, Mathis, Beeville, Nueces Bay, and Mustang Island. To my ears, that’s a novel waiting to happen. It’s landscape poetry.

Spin the Globe!

Maybe not literally, as a globe doesn’t get too specific, but I am a map lover, and I love to open an oversized atlas to a random page and start scouring the landscape. There are always interesting little towns, rivers, lakes, and roads that no one outside of the 26 residents of page 65, grid section G-2 have ever heard of. For example, a little slice of the British Columbia, Canada reveals: Tom Thumb Mountain, Paddy Peak, Jack Peak, Klondike Highway, and Maude Lake. Not bad for the “middle of nowhere.”

Rest Your Name In Peace

Some may find this a little creepy, but I know for a personal fact that I’m not the only writer who does this. Visiting old cemeteries—especially those from the era and in the region of the story you are writing—can deliver perfect names for your pre-Revolutionary settlers, Depression-era farmers, or turn-of-the-century robber barons. I still recall the first time I saw the name Otis Havermayer on a tombstone. Now that guy sounds interesting. You can do the same thing without leaving home by reading the obituary pages in local newspapers. Or if you prefer to let the honorable departed take their names with them to the other side, old phone books in your local library are another trove of names, and they’re already in alphabetical order. How convenient!

Places as People/People as Places

Just as many people are named after months, seasons, holidays, and various flora and fauna, places are often named after people. So if you find a name that you like, you can use it for either. For example, I published a short story called “The Cards We Keep” about hobos traveling along the California coast in the 1940s, but I named the characters directly or partially after place names from where I grew up—the Hudson Valley region in New York, places such as Ghent, Wilbur Flat, Oriole Mills, Claverack, Chatham, and Whitlock. Not all of those characters made it into the final version, but as character names, don’t they give those hobos a delightful vagabond quality? I think so, and you can use the same trick with your own people and places.

And of course, you can always look up popular baby names online, but putting yourself to work to find the right name for the right character is often half the fun. The next time your [correction : you're] plotting a novel chock full of characters and places, instead of firing up Google, hop in your car and drive down an unknown road, or head to the library with pen and notepad in hand, or take your red marker to a newspaper and start circling names. You never know where you’re going to find your own personal Otis Havermeyer!

Do you have a unique tip for finding the perfect character and place names? Share your thoughts below!

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James Duncan is a content editor for Writer’s Digest, the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, and is the author of the short story collection The Cards We Keep and the poetry collection Lantern Lit, Vol. 1. He is in the process of submitting a handful of novels to agents for traditional representation, just like everyone else on the planet. For more of his work, visit www.jameshduncan.com.

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