A Confession About Name Invention In My Stories

I am currently away on an Internet Vacation. I’ll be back online on March 31. I have written one new post for each day of my Vacation so that folks don’t miss me too much while I am gone. But keep in mind, these posts have been scheduled ahead of time. Feel free to comment, as always, but note that since I am not checking email, I will likely not be replying to comments until I am back from my Vacation on March 31. With that said, enjoy!

If you’ve ever taken a fiction-writing course, you’ve probably been taught some of the basics: theme, plot, characterization, what makes a story (hint: it has a beginning, middle, and end). I took plenty of fiction-writing classes as part of my minor in college. I’ve taken a handful more since. And one thing I’ve never learned from a fiction-writing course, or from books on the subject, is how to choose names for the characters that populate your worlds.

This is not something I dwell over, mind you. But I often get the impression that my fellow writers put lots of thought into the names they use in stories. The names often have multiple layers of meaning either independent of the story, or expressed somehow within the tale. That generally isn’t the case with my stories. Sometimes, I’ll think of a name that I like the sound of. I’ll jot it down or remember it and then assign it to a character when needed. More often than not, I think up names on the spot. I go through a series of motions when I do this: should I use a friend’s name? A relative? Still stuck? Okay, how about using Scrivener’s name generator to choose a random name.

In fact, thinking back through the fiction that I’ve had published, I can recall only one time in which I tried to embed some kind of reference in a character name. That was in my novelette, “If By Reason of Strength,” published by Forty Key books in Italy. The story is about a man who was sentenced to multiple consecutive life sentences in prison–nearly 300 years total!–and yet managed to survive to be released. The man’s name was Norman Gilmore. I chose Norman because it was the name of a friend, but “Gilmore” came from Gary Gilmore, who was featured prominently in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. The story was originally written as part of a science fiction workshop led by science fiction Grand Master James Gunn. Gunn was the only person who ever commented on my use of Gilmore as a name. I believe he suggested that using the name would force people to make the connection between my character and Gilmore. As it turns out, no one, not a single person besides James Gunn ever made the connection. Maybe people just don’t read too much into my stories.

There are times when I will work a little harder to come up with a name–as when the name reflects a particular culture. But even then, I don’t go looking for names that have particular meaning. I sometimes get the idea that in literature names are often nominatively deterministic, but that is not the way things are in real life. (A girl named “Grace” is not necessarily graceful.) The nominal determinism of names in a story might add a layer of depth to the story, but it certainly doesn’t reflect reality as I know it. Think of the seven dwarves that follow Snow White around and how their character matches their name. Maybe in a cartoon, but in fiction as a whole? I don’t buy it.

What I prefer is to choose a name, quickly and quietly, without a lot of searching through baby name books, trying to find a name that means something particularly important or useful to the story. Sometimes that name is completely random. What is perhaps most surprising is that I can still occasionally find subtle connections between even the random names and some interesting event in a story. That is much more natural to me. That’s the way it happens in real life, I think

Generally speaking, however, the names of my characters are pretty plain, although I like to think the characters themselves are not. I occasionally hesitate when naming characters in stories that take place far in the future. There is some part of me that is tempted to make up something completely new–something you see often in the Astounding stories of the 1940s. Usually, I resist the temptation. The name James has been around for centuries and is still very popular today. There is no reason to believe that names that are popular today won’t still be popular centuries hence. I’ve mostly stopped worrying about it. If the story is good, the names won’t matter much. Making them too outlandish only makes them get in the way of the story.

I am somewhat curious about how other people go about naming characters. Do you put lots of thought into them? Are your names nomatively deterministic? Are they completely random? Do you avoid or embrace using the names of people you know? Let me know in the comments.


  1. I usually just pick them on the fly. Sometimes I know what letter I want them to start with, and might use a baby names book or Scrivener names generator to pin one down.

    In one recent novel, I did use the name “Leo” for a character who pictured his rage as a lion inside him. And I needed a character with lots of possible nicknames for a woman with multiple personalities, so I used Elizabeth for her.

    Other times I have just opened the phonebook and put my finger on a name. In the novel I am starting I needed something foreign and complicated, but which had an easy Americanized nickname; I used Scrivener for that one.

  2. I’m reminded of the fascinating chapter on names in David Lodge’s “The Art of Fiction” (he uses a story by Paul Auster as his main example, by mentions many other writers and characters). He also discusses how he sets about naming his characters.

  3. Maybe José Saramago was so tired of this that he stopped naming characters completely (in his last novels we have “the doctor”, “the doctor’s wife”, “the blind guy” etc)


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