The Trouble with Names

Sooner or later, most writers run into a problem finding names for their characters. If one is writing a short story, two to four names are usually needed. A novel generally requires many more and, if the writer is creating series, then a hundred or more may be required. George R. R. Martin, creator of A Song of Fire and Ice, which inspires the HBO series, Game of Thrones, is reputed to have a four-drawer filing cabinet full of character profiles for more than six hundred named characters in his epic series.

With that in mind, I count myself lucky to have only needed a few dozen for each of my series. Even so, tracking them has become a challenge.

The trouble with names comes from two problems. In the first place, the writer needs to come up with new names on a regular basis. The new names should not sound too much like other names used in the same story to avoid confusion. As an example, Don, Dan, and Den, sound way too much alike to share the same paragraph, much less the same book. The same applies to Don, John, Ron, Tom. I’m sure any aspiring author can think of dozens of both male and female examples.

One solution that I’m sure has occurred to many of us is to Tuckerize the book. That means to use the names of family, friends, coworkers, allies, and enemies to fill the gap. This has its dangers as well as its rewards. Background on this can be found here:

A more common solution is to search baby name websites for the perfect one. Don’t be afraid to mix-and-match names from various ethnic backgrounds.

Currently, I’m working on the last book in a trilogy of science fiction novels. There are characters from several ethnic groups and the last book even requires alien names. Since I’m dealing with some primitive aliens, I took a page from human history. If one looks far enough back into the mists of time, all surnames have evolved from a trade or skill. All the Smiths, for example can trace their linage back to one or more metal workers. I chose a handful of basic sounds to denote different skills within their tribal structure, then added other sounds to denote the individual. The first alien the humans meet is called CheeYok. In their language, Yok denotes a hunter, while Chee is his given name.

The second problem with names is keeping track of all of them. Even in the same novel, it is way too easy for an author to get lost while telling the tale and confuse character names.

There are both Open Source and Commercial programs to help track all the bits and pieces of creative work. Here are a couple of popular ones:

Scrivener is an industry standard.

Celtx is an excellent Open Source program used by scriptwriters, comic artists and novelists.

On the other hand, I’ve found simple works best. My solution is to use my favorite word processor, LibreOffice Writer, to create two files for every novel. One file is the actual work in progress, while the other contains a list of character names and profiles, in order of their appearance, an outline of major plot points, and a list of URLs that have provided research data. When the first draft is finished, I send both the first draft and the notes to my editor.

I hope this is helpful and, as always, I’d love to hear what works for you.

Good luck and keep writing!

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