Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Name Game

Writer magazine this month has an article on naming characters. All the usual advice about consulting baby name books and using period phone books or other resources from the era your story's set in. If the reader is going to believe your character is a specific person in a specific place, the name has to be right.

Well, I don't have anything to add to that. It all makes total sense every time I read it, and I'll bet I've read almost exactly the same article a half dozen times over the years.

Instead I want to suggest one place to look for names that I've never seen in an article. No, I don't mean the Internet. Baby name lists and historical records are all over the 'net. That's not where I've gotten my best names.

Before moving to the islands, we lived in Albany, Oregon. Just up the street, not 100 feet from out front porch, was the entrance to the Oddfellows Cemetery. It wasn't the oldest cemetery in town, Albany prides itself on its pioneer past, but it had sections that went back into the mid 19th century. We used to take our dog, Shiloh, for walks there almost nightly.

And every time I was struggling for a character name – every single time I'd walk through the cemetery, tossing a tennis ball for Shiloh to chase, some grave marker I'd walked past dozens of times would suddenly offer its name up. I needed names for two henchmen - the bodyguards of an evil, Moriarty-like character. And up popped two stones, not a dozen feet apart, Dedman and Livingood. Needed a name for a dangerous mutineer – wandered across the main marker for the Leech family.

Every time I was scratching my head, struggling over a name, that cemetery supplied exactly what I needed. And it wasn't like it was a huge cemetery, there were no more than a few hundred headstones.

And now that I think about it, how different is using a cemetery to find character names than using a list of baby names? One is from the beginning of life, one is from the other side. What you're looking for is just a datbase of names that you can mix and match to name an imaginary person. In fact, the baby name list only offers first names, while the Oddfellows Cemetery gave me more last names than first, and they're harder to come by. So the cemetery is more useful.

Baby names are online, easy to find and sort through, or in books. Cemeteries offer a marble database, searchable only by walking. So there's that.

Or, you could use a random name generator. Stand in the cemetery and throw a tennis ball. The stone it stps in front of is your characters first name. Throw it again for the last name. Voila! You've got a character – and a nice bit of exercise as well!

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