How do writers name their characters? Is there a science behind it? No real science, but there’s plenty of advice online. Mystery author and writing guru Elizabeth Sims lists seven rules for picking names of fictional characters here.
I agree with Ms. Sims on the importance of getting your era right. Check the Social Security Name Index before calling your World War II heroine Brittany. According to this resource the popular female name didn’t even exist until 1971.
I was surprised to see that the name Clarence remains on the index. I’ve never personally met a Clarence and the name has certainly waned in popularity over the years. There was the character Clarence "Lumpy" Rutherford in the television sitcom Leave It to Beaver. And Clarence Day wrote Life with Father, an autobiographical book of stories depicting his family’s life in the 1890s. The name Clarence peaked in 1905 and enjoyed a modest spike in popularity in 2005. So if you want to name a character Clarence, by all means do so.
Ms. Sims also advises varying first initials. This is especially important for main characters. Names like Sandy and Sammy, especially if in the same scenes, will cause confusion and irritation and the last thing you want to do is irritate your readers.
But there are other ways to use names to create confusion, and if you're writing a mystery that may be just what you want to do. Use names that can be altered easily with nicknames, alternate spellings and/or pronunciations. The aforementioned Brittany has other spellings, like Brittni, Brittney, and Britney (as in Spears). Elizabeth is sometimes Elisabeth. Small differences, but a writer could make them matter. Many people go by their middle names, a practice a writer could use for misleading purposes. And nicknames like Skip, Muffin, or Junior offer possibilities as well.
Names that are easy to pronounce are helpful for the narrator of your audio book. Thankfully Susie Berneis, my reader for Murder at the Book Group, verified pronunciations for some of my ethnic names.
Consider a strong, memorable name for your series sleuth. You need look no further than literature for examples of great character names; the following first and last names sound strong and clear, and flow well together: Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch (detective created by Michael Connelly); Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye); Elvis Cole (detective created by Robert Crais); Jay Gatsby (Great Gatsby); Philip Marlowe (PI created by Raymond Chandler); Kinsey Millhone (PI created by Sue Grafton); and V.I. Warshawski (detective created by Sara Paretsky).
The authors of Freakonomics devote a chapter to the study of naming babies and examine the socio-economic impact of what could be the most important choice a parent will make. Their findings might surprise you.
Okay, but where do you find names?
Ask friends and acquaintances to suggest names. When you’re waiting in line at the movies, survey the people around you.
Have a naming contest on social media. When mystery writer Marilyn Meredith goes on a blog tour, she’ll name a character in her next book after the reader who comments on the most blogs.
Visit cemeteries, read obits, go to schools and libraries and peruse yearbooks.
Mine the Bible, phone books, mythology, history, and pop culture (songs, TV/movie characters, theatre). After seeing (and loving) the Danish drama Borgen, I’m planning to name a character Hesselboe, after Lars Hesselboe. A suitable first name will come to me.
There are scores of books and online databases devoted to baby names. Consider genealogical sites.
For my characters, I pick names that appeal to me. Some I get from movie credits: Sarah Rubottom is a recurring character in my Hazel Rose Book Group series. I named her after Wade Rubottom, an associate art director for many films in the thirties and forties. I named another character who appears throughout the series Georgia Dmytryk; Edward Dmytryk directed many World-War II-era noir films. I might have seen his name in the credits of Murder, My Sweet and it stuck with me. See more about how I named my characters in Murder at the Book Group here.
There are countless sources for character names. Here is a sampling:
Writers, how do you name your characters? Readers, what are your favorite character names?