In his painfully funny Famous Writing School, a novel, Stephen Carter's writing teacher-protagonist advises his students to seek character names in the obituaries.
Although Carter's bumbling Wendell Newton offers much dubious advice, that tip is an oldie but goodie. Obits are full of great names. I keep a list in a notebook on the breakfast table. I haven't yet written about Normal Peasley or Lamia Trowbridge, but they're ready when I need them.
My favourite name source is spam. Every morning I cull a few from my "bulk" inbox before I delete. I can always perk up a story by subjecting my heroine to a blind date with Zoticus Weatherwax or Hassan Snively.
Creative monikers don't just add colour and humour to storytelling. They help the reader keep track of a large cast and offer a shorthand reminder of their identities. Name the pizza guy Galveston Ngyen, or call the next-door neighbour Frida Kahlo Ravensdaughter, and you present your reader with a memorable handle on the character.
Here are some basic guidelines for naming characters.
1) Name only players, not spear carriers. Don't clutter the story with too many names. A named character needs to play a significant role. Call him "the pizza guy" if his only purpose is to deliver pepperoni with extra cheese. But if he later turns up dead in the alley, the reader will be grateful for the reminder that he's the Vietnamese kid from Texas. Call the neighbour "5B" unless she starts painting ELF graffiti on the boyfriend's SUV. Then we want to know she's that art student with two moms.
2) Choose names that are different from each other. Names that begin with the same letter can be confusing on the page: no rival boyfriends named Tim and Tom unless your heroine can't tell them apart either.
Note, this doesn't apply to real or well-known characters. An agent once told me I couldn't put characters named Morgan and Merlin in the same novel. Rules are helpful, but abolishing the entire Grail saga is a bit much.
3) Don't change names mid-story. In real life, an indigenous person called Fall-In-The-Fire might change his name to Jump-in-the-Pond after his vision quest, but it's better to use the same identification throughout. That way Reader-Of-Fiction won't morph into Throws-Book-Out-Window.
4) Choose names to fit the era. A recent editing client called a contemporary fifty-year-old librarian "Mildred" - an unlikely name for a Baby Boomer. I suggested Linda or Judy. On the other hand, Linda and Judy don't even rank in the top thousand names for this decade. If you're writing about the under-ten set, try Madison or Kayla.
I made an era mistake myself when reworking an old story. Morgan was an unusual name for a girl when I wrote the piece fifteen years ago. Now it's way more common than Anne.
Look up U.S. names by decade at the Social Security Administration site http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/decades/names.html.
But remember U.S., Canadian, and Brit names differ. Hyphenated names like Jean-Claude and Mary-Ellen are rare in the UK. But Zara, Nigella, and Callum - all popular in England now - don't appear on any U.S. lists. (But keep Nigella out of that Regency Romance. Cross check with your Jane Austen collection.)
U.K. names by decade are available at http://www.statistics.gov.uk/specials/babiesnames_girls.asp.
For naming Canadians, try
5) Don't fake foreign or antique names. Your Roman gladiator can be named Brutus or Africanus, but don't try Waynus or Garthus. (Ancient Roman first names were not numerous, which is why they called their kids stuff like "Quintus" and "Octavian" (literally, "five" and "eight.") As adults, Romans often earned Mafia-style nicknames. The poet Ovid was known as Ovidius Naso - Ovid the Nose.)
Look for old Classics textbooks for ancient names. For contemporary foreign names, try genealogy or baby-naming websites. For instance, this genealogy site is good for Polish names http://www.rootsweb.com/~polwgw/namelist.html, but for Japanese, try http://www.babynameworld.com/japanese.asp.
6) Give your character's name a Google before going forward. I recently wanted to name a gay porn star Peter McHugh until a Google showed a local County Supervisor with that name.
7) Avoid over-used names. It's hard to know these if you don't slog through weekly slush piles, but I've seen agents complain that all variations of Catherine/Kate/Caitlin have become ho-hum. Ditto Jake/Jack. Browse new books in your genre for patterns.
8) Run a final search-and-replace if you change a character's name. That's one I learned the hard way. I sent out requested partials of my new novel to two agents before I realized I'd reverted to the old name for an entire chapter.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and freelance writer. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk email@example.com