Today one of the students in my class asked a question I have heard nearly every writer I know ask. How do you come up with character names?
For starters, it depends on the world of your story. If your story takes place in this reality, most of your work is done already. Think about the era in which your story takes place, the approximate age of your character, and then do some math to figure out the year of their birth. Then, plug that year into a search engine along with the phrase "popular names" (you may have to add some qualifiers depending on if your characters are from Mumbai, Memphis, or otherwise). Then you can choose from, say, twenty names, as opposed to trying to think of one off the top of your head. Granted, you kind of have to trust the internet, and the farther back you are looking, the more you will need to broaden your search (so, instead of 1873, search 1870's or 1800's), but that's better than nothing.
What if you aren't working in this reality? What if you are projecting into the future? Consider the history of your world before throwing down some names. I critiqued a fellow writer's sf story where Hindu culture had become the predominant way of life, and he chose names for most of his characters following in that trend. I read another sf with an AI named Cybelle, in which you can see "cyber" and "belle". It's a rather simple and elegant way of naming a female AI.
Ok, so what if you aren't working in any present that has or might exist in our reality? What if you're spinning your world out of thin air? Then you have a few options.
1. Use names that exist in our world that sound good to you, but maybe aren't popular or well known. Cultures other than your own are a great way to find names like these. There isn't any shame in this, since your readers might have heard of some of these names and might even have a sense of pronunciation, which is never a bad thing. :)
2. Take a familiar name that you like and alter it just a bit. You could take "Mike" for example, and make it "Mika" or "Mico" or "Meke" without having to think too hard.
3. Or, if you don't mind doing a little work, you can do it the way I did for The Neif: figure out a system for your names. Whether you want your names to all be two syllables, or you want to hyphenate an honorific in for elders, whether you want a common ending to differentiate between sexes or races, whether certain consonants should only be reserved for royalty... There are a number of different variations you can do with these. I chose two-syllable names, Latin declension gender endings for the second syllable (with the genders switched, just for fun). Then all I had to do was choose a syllable to plug in for the first half of the names. I referenced this page when I had trouble thinking of a syllable that I hadn't used already. It takes some thinking to understand, but it was helpful.
I will also offer up these suggestions:
- Don't ask the character's name to do the work that you as an author should be doing. Giving a character a name with strong meaning to your story is great, but your reader should be understanding who your character is from the way you make her interact with others, the way you make him think about his world, the way you make her walk through her house, the way he drives his car, etc. A name is a shorthand concept of a person, not an all-encompassing definition.
- It's ok for characters to have similar names if you want them to. Do a search through your friends to see how many of them have the same first or last name. I wouldn't recommend giving two characters the same exact name (first or last), but you could get away with similar. It's common in real life, and if you are doing your job of characterization correctly in your story, your readers should be able to keep up.
- Have fun. Take some time and experiment. Solicit feedback from both writer and non-writer friends. You won't be able to make everyone happy, but with a little time and effort, you should be able to come up with some names that you will be pleased with.