Sunday, September 1, 2019

What's in a Name?

When I do a book event, one of the most frequent questions I get is how I come up with character names. It’s a good question and one I love to answer, because I love collecting names.
One of the best ways is to read the obituaries. Not only do they have a fantastic variety of names, they often give you the background behind it. You can find out that the person was a Croatian immigrant, or of Chinese ancestry, or hailed from a huge family in Indiana. All of these bits of information can more fully develop a character as you write.
Another great way to collect names is to watch the credits of a movie or TV show. Because—just, wow. The credits on something like an animated movie or CG-heavy blockbuster go on for ten minutes and are absolutely diverse. Watch one at home, where you can hit pause and write down whatever names strike your fancy.
If you need more of a mainstream name or you want to peg your time period just right, there’s no better source than the Social Security Baby Names website. You can find the top baby names by year. So if you’re writing a historical piece, you can find the top names from, say, 1890. (Number 10 was Bertha—see how awesome a tool this is?) You can also sort by name popularity, seeing how one name fluctuates over time. (Bertha, you will not be surprised to hear, declines steadily and disappears from the top 1,000 names altogether in 1985.) Be warned—this website is a rabbit hole of extreme dimensions. You could get sucked in for hours.
My last go-to name source is actually meant to be a name source: baby name books. I have one that sits right next to my thesaurus on my desk; it’s that important. I flip through it all the time.
If you write, where do you find names? And if you don’t write, do you read obituaries or notice movie credits?

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