I was writing a short story yesterday, called The Gods of Wind and Air. I knew the main character well enough, had an idea of who he was and what motivated him, and had a fair idea of what he was about to do. I had written the first paragraph and the last paragraph, so I knew where he and I were going together, but I didn’t know his name.
It needed to be reasonably short — five or six letter would be ideal. He was a peasant, with only one name and it didn’t need to be fancy, but it also didn’t need to look like he was an American. No Bill nor Tom nor even Andre need apply.
Usually by this stage in something I’m writing, I know all the main characters’ names, and minor characters are forgettable enough that their names don’t count. I didn’t want to stop the flow of things, so I went postal on the keyboard, firing off a hundred finger strokes at random while moving my hands in twin circles around the keyboard. Three seconds, four at the outside, and I had produced:
;dknclm,v mqrt09gyoweuhb sd; vkjqroifgowduh jnsdp;ogui48o uyecxvKsmvkrpifgvdwslhj merpiogiyfvcoldsjkjvm qp9fgvweujk mpf9gewqsiojksvbpo9irhgbcv anop;s’dkv90q8reudvbq][giu193reuojvbn fe][guy38ewyiush sjnf][5206yu08tr peldgjshdkv[w40efuy 2ieuochn wepgf0uhisdujvnmaw]p-0uyhgfovl;d klfop3yion[pqofgijeqhj
Somewhere in that mess would be letter clusters that would fire a spark in the old brain. Sure enough, there was a pel and an an which gave me Pellan, and my troubled peasant had a name.
If you plan to write a normal novel, you will need from dozens to hundreds of names. Sometimes that is easy. When I wrote Jandrax, the stranded colonists were French, three colonies removed from Earth, but still with French names. I went to Homo Hierarchicus, by Louis Dumont. It is a study of Indian caste by a French anthropologist which I had from my college days. Half of the scientists in the bibliography are French. I copied a long list of first names, a long list of last names, and chose at random from each. Then I cross-checked to see that I had not accidentally recreated some famous name — say, Marcel Proust. I did have a Marcel, but I made sure he had a different last name.
When I wrote Symphony in a Minor Key I needed a lot of Anglo and Mexican names. Where I live, that is no problem. I just went to the phone book to get twin, paired lists of first and last names.
Sometimes a reader has no trouble guessing where a writer got a name. In the western novel Flint, the villain is Porter Baldwin. Since Porter and Baldwin were two of the major locomotive manufacturers in that era, and the action revolves around frontier railroads, we have no problem figuring out where Louis L’Amour got PB’s name.
It’s not that easy when you are writing fantasy. I’ve never met anyone named Pellan, for instance. When I wrote my first fantasy novel, I needed names for five sub-lords (as I called them then). I happened to be listening to an early record (stereo, LP, 12 inch vinyl — it was a long time ago) by Ravi Shankar. In the liner notes, he explained the five parts of a raga, giving the Indian names for the movements.
Yes, you guessed it. I later modified them so that it was not so obvious. Just a piece of advice; if you are writing a fantasy about a pair of twins, and you happen to be listening to classical music — don’t name your twins Allegro and Adagio. Someone will notice.
Eventually, I needed so many odd ball names that I had a brainstorm. I bought a Find-a-word. They aren’t so popular anymore, so I will describe — a Find-a-word is a book of full page puzzles where each page is filled with letters in a grid. Your job is to find the words that are listed at the bottom of the page.
I used the Find-a-word to look for letter groupings that weren’t words, but could be in my fantasy world. Brilliant, I thought. In reality, I never found anything useful. Maybe you will have more luck. I offer the notion to you free of charge.
It’s no secret that most of the people who read A Writing Life are, or want to be, writers. If you will please look up and to the left, you will find a button that says Leave a reply.
I know you guys (and gals — and whatever) are out there. I can hear your breathing in the dark. Take five minutes and tell me what you do to find character names. I’m honestly curious.