Four Ways To Come Up With Fictional Names

Occasionally names are mere placeholders in fiction. 

Typically, however, a writer selects them with great care, to evoke a mood or hint at a secret, symbolic meaning.  Choosing names for characters and places can be an involved, even agonizing process.  And, it can be a major source of writer’s block.

Let’s face it, we are not all equipped to derive the name of every place and person meticulously from obscure ancient words the way a trained linguist like Tolkien would be.  And we don’t all have the ready wit of Dickens.  Most of us need more mundane inspiration. 

Here are four places a writer can turn for name ideas when the creative juices are just not flowing as they should.

1. The Phone Book. Hey kids, you know that big yellow paperback wrapped in plastic that your parents immediately throw in the recycling bin?  That’s called a “phone book” and it used to be the only way you could find people and businesses, back before the Interwebz.*

But, the handy dandy phone book is still useful for writers as a source of name ideas, primarily for characters.  In fact, it has virtually all of the names in it, at least those in your city.

And, it’s browseable!  Just flip it to a random page and point.  Don’t like that name?  Scan down the page.  You’re bound to find something that fits.

Another good thing about the phone book is the Yellow Pages section.  If you’ve ever been stumped for a business name that sounds authentic, there’s nothing better than looking through a list of them in the same field to find common themes.

Need to name a Chinese restaurant?  Lots of imperials, pandas, dragons, palaces, gardens, and jade among those names.  And, if you’re wanting to create something original, it helps to know what is already cliché so you can avoid it.

2. Cemeteries. The cemetery, not to be morbid, is like the Phone Book of the Dead in that all of the names are there.

The added benefit of older cemeteries, particularly for authors of historical fiction, is that it can give you ideas for names that are no longer fashionable.

Of course, be respectful and don’t use the exact names you find.  Try throwing together first and last names from different parts of the cemetery to come up with something new.

And, try to avoid being too obvious about your reasons for being there.  It is hard to imagine something more mortifying than being caught enthusiastically discussing the possibilities for a grave-found name as family members walk up with flowers.  Trust me.

3. Typos. Yes, that annoying fat-thumb you make every time you text your bff can be put to good use!

Typos can provide ‘real looking’ words, whether they are caused by erroneous keystrokes, or linguistic patterns that get misapplied by the speech circuits of the brain.

For example, my quick-typing fingers like to add silent E’s to the ends of words that do not have them, serving up prizes like “traffice” for “traffic.”  Now, if you didn’t know that Traffice was a typo for “traffic” you might think it looks like the name of a city, especially if I degemminate to make it Trafice.

Another example?  The other day I texted i’t salmost instead of it’s almost.  Taking the “salmost” I could invent a Mediterranean fishing town, San Salmosto.  A quick Google search reveals that there is no such place in the real world.  Or, I could take “Sal” as a nickname, and create a character, Sally Most.

Try keeping track of your own interesting or recurring typos.  They could be a treasure trove of name ideas.

4. The News. Not only are there lots of interesting names in the news, but you can get a better sense of real-world titles, and the language officials use when talking to the press.  This is particularly useful if you’re writing a political thriller.

As a prank at work a few years back, I decided to concoct a fake news story about a satellite laser attack.  I even doctored a photograph to look like a video still of the laser slicing into a building from space.  The text, of course, was the real challenge. 

To make it more plausible that the attack had slipped under the radar of the big American news networks, I needed it to happen somewhere far away.  I chose a Southeast Asian island, and spent a few hours reading news articles on security incidents from the country to get a feel for who would be speaking to the press about what sorts of events. 

I also checked out who responds from the Pentagon when the press starts asking invasive questions about secret military operations involving classified technology. Lots of names, titles, modes of speech.

The result was apparently convincing because the targets of the prank got into a heated debate about who “knew this kind of thing was going on” first!


* By the way, I dislike when other people use cutesy terms like “the interwebz” to sound hiply/ironically ignorant.  It reads like a column from The Onion, doesn’t it?  So, yes, I made myself a little queasy there, but in the interest of candor and confession, I’m leaving it in.

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  1. I find some fascinating and unusual names watching movie credit. I don’t know why gaffers and best boys tend to have more interesting names that what I find anywhere else, but they do seem to.

  2. That’s a great addition! If I revisit this idea, can I include yours? (With attribution, of course!)

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