Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ideas: Random Name Generators

Technique Tuesday

A question commonly asked of writers is, "How do you come up with names for characters?"

The technique for finding names presented here is a good example of the general habit of wondering how the things you notice came to be that way--which seems common among the good writers I know.

The pattern is simple:
  1. Find interesting names
  2. Play with the history implied by the name.
Interesting names appear all the time in the written and spoken environment. I once noticed glycol ester of wood rosin among the list of ingredients in a bottled drink. Instead of fretting about obscure food additives, I wondered how Esther Glycol, the Regency-era daughter of an impoverish vicar, came to be mistress of the estate of Woodrosin. (You didn't know you could get that much from a list of ingredients, did you?)

If you need to find names more quickly, you can play the phone book game: open to a random page and drop your finger to find a given name or a surname. On one occasion, when I needed a set of modern, ethnically diverse names, I collected all the surnames and given names from the credits of a recent movie

I've written simple programs that randomly combine names from two or more lists of the lists I collected. If your list of surnames isn't too large, you'll get several first name/last name pairs and it's easy to imagine they're related. Not only will you have names, you'll have genealogies, and perhaps some ideas about family histories as well.

I've also used this approach to assemble names from syllable lists for fantastic or alien characters. One nice result of this approach is that the names sound like they came from the same culture because they're assembled using the same rules.

The important thing is to generate a number of names and then choose the handful that speak to you. Play with the names that are most evocative and see what else springs to mind.

I have to be careful when I play with names because it's so easy to find interesting names and invent histories and relationships that I inevitably collect more names than I can use and spend more time doing so than I should.

A Sample of Name Generators on the Internet
  • BehindTheName.com is a site for the "etymology and history of first names." It has a generator that can be restricted to particular ethnic groups.
  • There's a US Census-based name generator at http://www.kleimo.com/random/name.cfm
  • Seventh Sanctum™ has a cornucopia of fantasy/gaming-inspired name generators for everything from people to pirate ships.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. My favorite is looking up name meanings and ethnicity on baby-naming sites. It's fun to go "meaning first, name after."

    Great post.

  2. I do the baby name site, too. I like looking at the meaning of the names, as well as its cultural significance. It all depends on the characters, you know. i believe in the mystical relationship between one's name and their character. So I name my characters according to this. Thanks for the list of name generator sites, though.


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