Character Names – Random, Plentiful and Believable

What do the following character names have in common?

Maria Archer
Hollis Rivers
Ester Stringer
Robert Mueller, Director of the FBI

OK, so that last one doesn’t really fit with my topic, but all of these started out the day in my email spam folder.  I have been harvesting character names from this source for quite some time.  The names gathered in this fashion satisfy three of my basic requirements for stock character names: they are random, they are plentiful and they are believable.

For main characters, names are often chosen to signify some aspect of the character, but for the rest of the characters that inhabit a story’s world, I usually find that I would prefer not to have any additional baggage come along for the ride.  Even if you, as the writer, simulate a random sampling for your names, you will more than likely subconciously return to the same names again and again.  True randomness should be free from control and nothing says out of control like the typical spam folder.  As far as plentiful, I usually receive a couple dozen spam emails per day and at least half of them have proper names in the from address.

Which brings us to the last requirement: believability.  Spam emails, by their very nature are designed to get the recipient to open them.  One way that this is accomplished is by making it appear as though the email is coming from somebody that the recipient knows or thinks they might know.  Now, sometimes the spammers go off the rails and send out some truly whacky combinations.  These can be great when you are featuring a unique character that really needs a unique name to match.

I know there are plenty of character name generators available on the internet, but with this technique, you don’t have to go out of your way to find a name.  A quick scan of your spam folder should provide a usable name, allowing you to stay in the writing groove.

And speaking of main characters and the careful crafting of their names, I have a funny story to relate.  A couple of years back, I was working on a NaNoWriMo novel and chose the name Crash Bandicoot for my protagonist (not from the spam folder, mind you).  I meant to go back and “fix” his name, but after a dozen pages, it just kind of stuck, especially when another character kept referring to him as “Crashy”.

About Tim Giron

There are some who call him… Tim.

Comments

  1. Timely post! I just used this technique twice tonight. If the age of the person is important I may cross reference with a name frequency site (which names were popular in which years), but the Spam folder is where I often start.

  2. Eric Bahle says:

    That’s flippin brilliant. I’ve been looking at the authors on the books laying around my desk and mixing first and last names. That well dries up pretty quickly.

  3. I used a plant catalogue once and found Van Sissinghurst as the perfect name for the primary villain I was writing about. The news is a good source for strange names, look in the obituaries. But I also find at times I become too focused on the character’s name, thinking it has to somehow enhance or support the actual traits and behaviors of the character. The worst is when I think I have a name, but can’t keep myself from searching for something a little bit better.

  4. cool idea, Tim. The novel I’m working on has about 100 minor characters in need of names. I’m digging the spam route. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Well said, Tim! I always get a kick out of the names you use in your stories and your advice will help tremendously.

  6. I always love hearing about little tricks and suggestions like this! I will definitely use that trick whenever I next get the chance.

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  1. […] I eat my own dog food on character names and got all of these from my spam folder as mentioned in a previous blog post of mine.  That there was a great name for a circus acrobat was a big […]