Generating Names, or: Methods for manufacturing multiple, meaningful monikers for many made-up mortals.
For those of you following at home, the literary device I used for the title is called “alliteration”. It is mostly used in children’s poetry and stories, so I am meaning it to come across as very silly and fun, thus setting the tone for this article to be a lighthearted one. I’ve also been listening to an Irish Pub station on Pandora recently, so “around the ragged rocks the ragged rascal ran” has been pushing my unconscious toward using alliteration. Probably.
Since we are already on the topic of consonant usage, I’ll start with how to generate names based on repetitive letters and sounds, which is a naming convention most associated with Stan Lee. Now, a lot of what I’ve seen from Stan Lee (and Jack Kirby) uses popular first names, then has a fairly standard last name attached. For example, Peter Parker (first appeared in 1962) has a first name that has been in the top 50 (for the most part) popular names up until the 1980’s, and his last name is the 47th most common surname in the United States (according to Wikipedia). (It might also have something to do with the Parker Brothers, Charlie Parker, or Dorothy Parker.) DC also has their own alliterative characters, such as Lois Lane (first appeared in 1938) who has the 17th most popular first name from 1929–30 (according to the Social Security Administration) that remained fairly popular up through the 1950’s, and whose last name was probably pulled from the day to day experience of Siegel and Shuster when towns were smaller and street names were said in full.
The starting point for this method, then, begins with pulling up the Social Security Administration’s website for baby names (https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/) and pulling names that you like. For the sake of example, I will choose these popular names from 2015: Oliver, Amelia, Jackson, Lily, Dylan, and Brooklyn. The next thing I’m going to do is attach the first word I can think of that starts with the same letter to each name: Oliver Oats, Amelia Aries, Jackson Jester, Lily Lime, Dylan Dart, Brooklyn Burns. Now, it is time to run each of these names through a Google search to make sure unintended associations are not being made. The top results for Oliver Oats show a Jamie Oliver recipe, a census record on ancestry.com, and an article about an Oat mill in Chicago, so I am comfortable with the associations this character will have right out of the gate. (I’m also storing these sources in the back of my brain should I need some story inspiration later.) Amelia Aries, on the other hand, seems to be a popular name for sexually motivated social media novelty accounts, so I’m going to have to give our dear Amelia a different last name. To do this I’m just going to search for words that begin with the letter “a” then pick one I like. After doing some quick searches on potential full names, I have chosen “Avant” for Amelia. Take a look at how well the other names might work on your own (and let me know in the comments what you find and what changes you might make!)
The next method for naming that I wanted to go through is finding names through generators online. First, I’ll go to behindthename.com/random/ and generate a whole bunch of names without adjusting any settings. (This generator also lets you plug in a surname if you have already come up with one, like in a book that features lineage.) If you are following along in each action, you will discover that completely random generated names lack cohesion, rhythm, or poetry, so we should adjust the settings a bit to at least exclude the novelty names (from categories such as “witch”, “redneck”, and “Xalaxxi”). Since I still need names for the pineapple story, I’ll select “Spanish” then generate away. After the first iteration, I think I have a good name for my shopkeeper: Graciana Perez. As always, this name will be vetted before finalization, but you already know how to do that, so I’ll move right along. The rest of the cast is as follows so far: street kid — Rafa Diaz, regular customer — Maria Reyes, shopkeeper’s otter — Aristides Perez. This is a great tool for semi-realistic names that can generate decent names quickly as long as you research their meaning and associations as you go.
However, if you want to get more fantastic, then other name generators may work better for you, such as fantasynamegenerators.com. In my experience, the names generated from this site need some extra spark from the people using them, but shotgun methods have their benefits. For this example, I think I would like some futuristic names, so I’ll select that generator from the “Fantasy Names” drop-down menu and cycle through to see if there are any that show promise. Again, if you are following along, you might have noticed that these names aren’t very futuristic at all and use way too many “edgy” letters for no reason, so I’m going to pick a different one. Let’s go with the Apocalypse generator. Right away, I have some names I like: Sketch, Penance, Cinder, Clarity, and Chance. The only name that is probably going to make it past the vetting phase will probably be “Sketch”, because Penance and Clarity follow Puritanical naming conventions that people like to use in a pornographic or sexual context, and Cinder and Chance are already used as names for pets. If I do write more dirty stories than I do now, or if I write stories similar to Homeward Bound, I may come back to these names, so I’m going to store them in my handy dandy notebook or an excel spreadsheet for character names.
The downside to using these first two naming methods is that, if you start with the character instead of the name, the connection between the character and the name is superficial and not very meaningful. It works well for superheroes who are more associated with their alter egos than their given names, and for characters you haven’t come up with yet, but other methods need to be used if you have already determined who your character is, what they do in the story, and what narratives you want to convey through that character without changing the plot you have. The two major methods to use in this case requires some knowledge of history and culture to do well, so if you haven’t gotten around to reading all of those Norton anthologies or haven’t kept up with world history and current events, then now is a great time to get caught up. (Wikipedia is your friend.)
The first method is to come up with some words in English associated with your character, then cycle those words through Google Translate or a language dictionary. For example, let’s take a look at a character who is characterized by their slimy dealings and their petty greed, and happens to be of a geist-like race. I am going to run “slimy”, “petty”, “greedy”, and “geist” through Google Translate until I find words in a language that sound right and make some connotative sense. I’m going to start through Spanish words, because the button is already at the top of the screen and I don’t have to scroll through all of the languages. Immediately, I think I have a decent first name for this character from “baboso”, the Spanish word for slimy. I will shorten it to Babo, because I like the sound of it when I say it with an intonation of disgust. Since the first name is Spanish, I’ll stick with the last name also being Spanish, but if nothing comes up that I like, I’ll move on to a different language. After plugging in “petty”, the program returned “mezquino”, which sounds like “mosquito”, so I’ll use that for Babo’s last name, but I want to shorten the name to two syllables (my rule of thumb is for last names to have a number of syllables equal to or less than that of the first name), so I end up with “Mezque”. This name already has some heavy connotations outside of my intents, so I’m going to have to research it more and get some forum feedback before using it in a story.
The second method is to find people or characters throughout history who bear similarities to your own characters thematically, or people or characters who experience similar events to those experienced by your own characters in an updated or new way (make it new, don’t redo). For example, if I create a character who is a female computer hacker or programmer, then I will probably give her the last name “Lovelace”, thereby alluding to Ada Lovelace who many people credit as the inventor of the world’s first computer program. (In fact, I think Ready Player One missed an opportunity by not referring to historic lady programmers. Parzival makes sense, but Art3mis is just lazy, especially for someone studying creative writing and poetry at a College level, but I digress.) Another example is if I have a character who is a ruthless, politically driven, militaristic, power-hungry person, then I would probably give them a name that alludes to Lucius Sergius Catilina, or Catiline, because the historical events and the contemporary responses to them are both amusing and potent. Basically, if you want your character to allude to another character or person, then it is best to know the source material you are alluding to. (If you want to see this done well, take a look at how Suzanne Collins puts in subtle references to Spartacus by naming a character “Plutarch”, and adds significant characterization to Cinna by connecting him to the historic figure Lucius Cornelius Cinna.)
Naming characters is not an exact science, but, like any art, you can get better using specialized resources and through practice, so get after it! (I also find it to be fun and a way to brainstorm new story ideas.)
Did it work for you? Did you come up with names you’d like to share with the class? Do you have questions for me? Are you not sure if your character has similarities to historic and literary figures and want some help to figure out if they do? Is there a topic that you want me to write about? Let me know in the comments section! I look forward to hearing from you!