What's In a Name?

The perfect literary germ plunks into your brain, infecting you with a new novel idea. You
flesh it out: put a little meat on your main characters’ bones, add some conflict, maybe decide where all the action takes place. And then. Then comes the moment of truth.

What shall you name your characters?

I imagine some, like me, have experienced that initial creative spark as the actual name of our main characters. For my last novel, The Tithe, the novel stork helpfully deposited the following into my fertile brain: A young woman who lives in the Mojave Desert and is named Josh after the Joshua Trees. I built everything else around that flash of insight.

Most of the time, though, names don’t appear fully formed like Josh’s. Occasionally I rely on old-fashioned intuition, or maybe introspection, or whatever you would call sitting around with pen clacking against teeth while waiting for names to float to the top of  my brain murk. Kinda, you know, like a Magic 8 Ball. This highly scientific method is how I named all my former sheroes: waiting for inspiration, tasting the texture of the proposed names, and finally adopting one.

When it comes to my heroes and many of my minor characters, however, I practice something I learned in college and that makes my intimidating student debt almost seem worthwhile: I research. In a feat of logic that would make Mr. Spock (may he rest in peace) slap me a high-five, I often snag names by the following method, provided, of course, my characters exist in a contemporary, U.S. setting:

1. I decide on the person’s sex. For our purposes, we’re going with female right now.
2. Next, I determine the person’s age. I mean the actual year they were born. Let’s say 1978.
3. I arbitrarily choose a number, usually between one and fifty but occasionally on up to one hundred or even above. Let’s go with thirty-nine.
4. I visit the Social Security Administration’s database of baby names from years past (e.g., names from the 70s) and snag the thirty-ninth female name.

Congrats, my friends! We now have Erin, a literary newborn with a historically accurate moniker.

I know what you’re thinking: Great, Elle, but unlike Penny in The Big Bang Theory, our newborn is going to need at least two whole names. For last names, I try my mental character quest first. If that doesn’t work, I’ll happily retread the research route.

1. First, we must determine the person’s racial, national, and/or ethnic background. Is s/he Mexican American? Pakistani? Welsh American? I just discovered “Erin” is Irish, so let’s go with that.
2. Once again, I’m going to choose a random number. I choose twenty-four.
3. Turn to the harbinger of all knowledge – I refer to Google, of course – and type in “Somalian [or whatever] surnames.” Of course, for our purposes, we’re going to type in “Irish last names.” Entire, juicy, numbered lists should fill our screens. Let’s click on a page and snag the two dozenth name.
4. Of course, if you’re me, you like having a list of unusual surnames, so you might want to bookmark such pages as this, or maybe this.

If I stick with my formula above, I now have a character named Erin Daly. Not too shabby.

From rumination to research, my process for deciding my characters’ names is nothing if not an adventure. What’s in a name? Sometimes, lots of exciting, nerdarific hard work!


  1. Ha! I go to name databases, too, but I choose a name based on what it means, and how that meaning fits into my story. :-)

    1. You are truly a blend of research nerd and touchy-feely artiste. :-D


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