It's difficult for me to imagine my main characters until I name them in full, first and last name included. I recently made the honest mistake of using the name Louise Fletcher, not making the connection with the actor. Yes, I've seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but I just didn't know the actor's name, even though she was a regular on Deep Space Nine.

My usual process of naming involves random name generators, building lists of possibilities to see how first and last names fit together, picking up books and opening them at random pages, thinking of people I know whose name I can mix and match with others ... in short, anything goes. Whatever gets me the name.

When I build the list, I make sure the names sound distinct and start with different initials. It ends up being something of a puzzle, where if I change one name I can end up trashing the whole list and starting again.

In the same bout of naming that turned up Louise Fletcher, I used the first name of Jules for my protagonist. Someone looking at my work said it reminded them of the character in Pulp Fiction played by Samuel L. Jackson. I'd drawn the same conclusion when I first thought of the name, but after much messing around with other possibilities, I kept coming back to Jules.

Making mistakes with first names seems so damned hard to avoid. I tried Jack on for size and quickly rejected it when I thought of Bauer, Reacher, and Taylor. Sticking to the Js, I moved onto John, Jake, Jerod. Aside from Jerod, which I rejected because it sounded too clean (and reminded me of a person from The Biggest Loser), the others had been used before, with characters that are part of the public consciousness, at least in crime fiction or film.

This led me to further insanity. Do I have to use the last name all the time, just to differentiate my character? Or should I come up with quirkier names that wouldn't even suit the piece, like Tyler Durden, or strategic misspellings such as Slyvestor Spallone?

The only thought that pulled me out of this abyss was that if I made my character distinctive enough, with a full personality all of his own, after a few chapters Jules would become his own man in the eyes of the reader. So I'm sticking to my guns, but I thought it was worth sharing this insanity, if only so I learn that there are others out there, like me, afflicted with the same illness.

I'm not the only one, am I?

(cue echo)

Am I?

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Oh no! See, where will it end? It doesn't matter what I do, someone else has used one of the names before. I have a friend with the first name Craig and another with the last name Nolan, come to think of it.

It should be fine, seeing as I probably won't use the last name much at all, and you'll probably use the last name a lot?
For inspiration and to do the old mix-and-match, I often troll the obituaries at the New Orleans Times Picayune. A great selection of unique names.
Obits is a cool idea. I'll have to see if I can find something local to search.
My problem with using a baby name book is that the names need to be time specific so often. No sense naming a character in her eighties Heather or Tiffany. Likewise no babies now are being named Barbara or Diane. Male names change less although names like Dylan and O'Connor are recent.
Patti, I have a book that lists the most common names each decade for the past 120 years.

Also, go here to do an online search for the most popular names of any year after 1879.
Thanks, Sandra. You are always a wealth of knowledge. I've been going on memory and instinct till now.
Names are always a challenge. I don't have a formula, but in having written/published 3 novels with two more due to be released soon, I have learned a trick or two.
First, I try to pick names that convey some aspect of my characters. In "Original Sin", I knew that my victim (an older lady who was well loved) should project some type of "sweetness" about her. So, I fell on her first name "Emma" , after Aunt Em in Oz. Second, I chose "caine" for her last name, as a play on "sugar cane".
Of course, that isn't always possible so I will often use one syllable names for men (Jack, pete, etc.) and uncommon names for people in my books who are uncommon. ie; extremely wealthy, high society, etc. In those cases, it pays to use a surname for a first name. For example in "The Root of All Evil" I use Berger Hume for the wealthy client, and his sons first names are Warren or Denton.

Ultimately, if it doesn't roll off the tongue when reading the book out loud, I discard it. There is a certain "musciatlity" of prose that must flow well for the reader. (This isn't just my opinion. Elmore Leonard has mentioned it several times.)

Hope this helps
I sometimes look at the age of my character and go to popular baby names for that period. And sometimes I've used the Celtic names and read into the symbolism or meaning behind the name for further inspiration. Other times I've scrolled down a phone book and said the names aloud to see if the first and last names go together and roll off the tongue easily. I've even considered a naming dartboard--the highly scientific method appeals to me.

But always, I try to find something unsual with nickname potential that defines who they are too. Hokey names or boring names don't stick. It has to be something in between.
I also look up the meaning sometimes. If there are two names that sound right, I'll go for the one with the meaning that works best for me.

Naming Dartboard! Excellent!
I'm not alone! Sounds like you have some evil Gods Of Coincidence following your writing. I suppose there's only a certain amount we can do to avoid things like this.

Instead of a cemetery (which is a cool idea), I've been drawing on some of my names from a book of police photographs from around 1920s Sydney. That was how I arrived at the name Louise Fletcher.
I use my family tree. With 200,000 names, I have endless combinations from many different cultures and countries. I also Google.
I'm hopeless at naming anything. I even wait until my pets acquire a name out of thin air before I name them. Same with my characters. As I got to know them they acquired names. The only one I know I'm going to have to change, so far, is a so-so guitar player having fantasy success, named Constantine. I'll have to be practical and change that one.

It's very different when I work with my partner. He and I named the characters for our sci fi before we did anything else -- and we're experimenting with a total no-no. Andrea and Andre. I enjoy the game of thinking up subtle ways to signal which person it is every time one of those names is mentioned.


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