Six Sources for Finding Names

To wrap up the month on naming characters and places, here are six sources for finding names.

Family History

If you have an amateur genealogist in your family, take a look at her work. My sister fills that role in our family and has uncovered relatives named Moses, Minerva, and Oral. Among the last names, she’s found Bonar, Righter, and Talkington. 

If you are planning to write about a family that covers several generations, studying your family’s naming patterns can help you build realistic-sounding names. In my family, we use middle names to honor someone while first names are usually ones the parents just happen to like. Five of my parents’ grandsons are named after grandfathers or great-grandfathers. My sister gave her daughter the middle name “Brooke” in memory of a college roommate

Social Security Baby Names

You can search baby naming trends back to 1880 on Social Security, perfect for historical fiction, or anytime you need to research the popularity of names in America.. This site does have one drawback. It doesn’t combine spelling variations. “Aiden” is much more popular than you would think from this site because parents spell it so many different ways, and each of those ways is listed separately.


I know that sounds grim, but I’ve found many interesting names while reading headstones in a cemetery. It also gives you a sense of history about a community if you read who lived and died there.

My oldest and I visited a cemetery this summer to find inspiration for names in our stories. That’s me looking at an obelisk headstone for a family named Van Deman. Sounds Dutch to me. Many of America’s earliest settlers were Dutch, so I could use that name for a family with old money. “Deman” looks a lot like “demon”. The family could be sinister, harboring a dark secret. But I’d change it to Van Daman so I don’t telegraph to readers that these characters are probably bad guys.

The next three categories are aimed at writers of fantasy and science fiction. But contemporary writers might still find inspiration. Maybe you have a character who is a professor of Celtic mythology and named all her children after the gods in those myths.

Scientific names for animals

Get a field guide. Flipping through my husband’s book on birds, I find Calidris, Striatus, Thula. Asio, Strix, and Zenaida. Tyto Albo is the name for barn owls. It also sounds like a great name for the hero of an epic. If I change it to Tyta Albo or Alba Tyto, I have a heroine.


A search through less well-known Greek, Roman, and Norse myths can provide names. I recommend dipping into mythologies that aren’t as well-known in America, like Celtic and Slavic. Just a few names I’ve found from Celtic and Slavic stories are Bres, Korrigan, Sadko, Morevna, and Caradoc.

Reverse and tinker with well-known names

I take a name like William and write it backwards, Mailliw. That’s unpronounceable. But I remove the “iw”, leaving Maill. Then I switch the vowels and change the “i” to “y”. I now have Myall, a name any English reader can sound out.

If you didn’t read my recommendation for the Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon, click here.

What other sources for finding names do you recommend?

Unusual Inspiration for Names

What’s the most unusual inspiration for names you’ve used? It can be for your writing, a character or place, or in your real life, a name for a child or pet.

My sister gave her daughter the middle name Gennai. One of her favorite movies is The Inn of the Sixth Happiness with Ingrid Bergman. It tells the true story of missionary Gladys Aylward, who lived in China during the 1930’s. Gennai was the name she was given in China.

I was inspired to name a minor character after a road sign. In the country, many roads have two names, like Smith Brown Road. I think it’s because the roads were named after families who lived on them. I found one called Bean Oller Road. I imagined that Bean is the nickname for a man whose last name is Oller. Nobody knows how he got the nickname because he changes his story every time someone asks him about it.

Let me know about your most unusual inspiration for names.

The Art of Creating Character Names

Last week I wrote about the Golden Rules for naming characters. Today I will dig into the art of creating character names. Names can do more than label characters. They can be quick ways to define relationships, provide backstory, and above all, add another layer of reality to our fiction.

Choose Variety

In my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I had to name a lot of characters in a small amount of narrative space. Selecting names from a variety of different languages helped me differentiate between characters and aided readers in keeping the cast straight. My story is set in rural, southeast Ohio. 90-95% of the population is descended from European immigrants. Having lived in the area, I knew what languages I could pick from to create believable names.

My main character is searching for her father and has three candidates. I had to make those male characters distinct. One way was to give them last names from three different languages, Irish, English, and Polish. So I came up with O’Neil, Carlisle, and Malinowski.

In the U.S., English names can signify old money. I chose Carlisle as the last name for a wealthy businessman. He has three children, so I stuck to the English theme and named them Allison, Richard, and Sylvia.

The sheriff got the last name Malinowski and also has three kids. To keep the two sets of kids separate, I needed a different naming pattern. I introduce the Malinowski family at a church lunch, so I chose Hebrew names for the kids, Aaron and Micah. The oldest is called Rusty, which I will explain below.

Names provide backstory.

For some reason I can’t recall, I liked the idea of the sheriff going by the nickname Mal, based on his last name, Malinowski. That forced me to examine why he preferred a nickname to his first name. He probably hated his first name. What would be an awful first name for a Gen X guy? Walter seemed to fit the bill. But his mother is a character in the story, and she seems like a genuinely nice woman. Why would she saddle her son with a name like that? Because it’s a family name. So I created Walter R. Malinowski IV. His oldest son is called Rusty. It doesn’t take much thought from the reader to figure out why.

By digging deeper into the reason behind my name, I developed my characters.

Names define relationships.

The wealthy business man is Jason Carlisle and he has a brother Rick. Jason also has a son Richard. That tells the reader, without me explicitly saying so, that the brothers are close. I have a scene in which Jason teases Rick about his dating life and that demonstrates the kind of relationship they have, but the names are a quiet code that reinforces the idea.

Side Note: I just realized I violated my rule of not having names look alike with Rick and Richard. I’ll have to watch out for that.

Your turn. What names have you created for characters? Why? What memorable names have you come across in stories?

Help me create place names

Could you help me create place names for my fictional county in Ohio? I need to invent names for tiny, rural villages and a river. I have two names for towns already. The county seat is Wellesville and a village is Barton. I’m finding the river to be the tricky one.

Rivers in Ohio have Native American names or anglicized versions of words from Native American languages, Ohio being a prime example. Other rivers in the state are Muskingum, Sandusky, Scioto, and Olentangy. I want a name that fits in with the real rivers.

I’d love to hear your ideas!

The Golden Rules for Creating Names in Fiction

Like I said last week, I think naming character, places, and businesses in fiction is an art. Before you hurry away to invent hundred of memorable names, keep in mind the two golden rules for creating names in fiction.

Names must be pronounceable.

Whatever language I write in, whatever audience I write for, I must create names that my readers can easily figure out the pronunciation for. When I was a teen, I read Murder for Christmas by Agatha Christie. The butler was named Tresselian. I had no idea how that sounded, so I either made it Tremayne or just bleeped over it.

Mario Puzo used the last name Corleone for his Mafia dynasty in The Godfather. Whether readers read it as Core-lee-own or Core-lee-own-ee, the name was easy for readers of English to get at least a close approximation. In his novel The Last Don, Mr. Puzo used the last name Clericuzio. I think I know how to say it, but as a reader I’d like a name that was easier to sound out. But being an extremely successful author, Mr. Puzo was in a position to dump a mouthful like that in his fiction.

Names must not resemble each other.

If I have a character named Bob, I should not have another one named Bobbie. Or Mary and Mason. Or Caroline and Carl. Or Mr. Terrell and Mrs. Terry. With so many names to choose from, I don’t have an excuse for picking lookalike names. It only confuses the reader and makes them reread sections when they get the name wrong. The more they have to reread, the more irritated they become.

Even when I write about an extended family, and they have a tradition of handing down a certain name, I still have to differentiate it somehow. Bob’s son goes by Robert, and Robert’s son can go by a nickname like Chip.

The only exception to the above rule is if the names that can be mistaken for one another are part of the plot. Mrs. Fleming has Mr. Flemish’s luggage delivers to her hotel room and discovers one suitcase contains a bag of jewels.

Have you read a story that violate the golden rules for creating names in fiction?

Powered by

Up ↑