Just gonna jump right into this one.
- Baby name lists. There are a number of these online, and if you’re not looking for a symbolic name, choosing a random one from the list works out pretty well. In fact, I have an Excel file that I use for both first and last names, when symbolism doesn’t matter.
- Shakespeare. I never try this, because I see it as beating readers over the head with your symbolism (oh really, Romeo’s gonna die?), but there are several authors who borrow names from the Bard. If you decide to, best practice is to use the name of a minor character (no Hamlets, Othellos, or Lears).
- The Bible. A somewhat overused source of symbolism. I can see giving characters vaguely biblical names (for example, Matthew) if the name makes a point about parentage—a religious family will give their children biblical names, and there no avoiding that—but if the point is foreshadowing, please don’t. Even the most naïve reader ought to know by now that a character with the initials JC is going to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, so using those initials isn’t clever, it’s ridiculous.
- Variations on the name of the person your character’s based on. Lim Karkrashian, or Pears Hilden. This is a big one in satire, but not so much anywhere else. Sometimes, if I think of a particularly memorable name I’ve encountered, I’ll twist it a little to put it in a story, so I can’t be too harsh on this. The purpose of this source, in my mind, is to provide contrast in your novel. A story full of Smiths and Williams isn’t quite as interesting as one with a little variation.
- Made up names. My gut reaction is to cover the page in “No no no no no!” but if you’re Tolkien, or you’re writing speculative fiction, there’s a little more leeway. The problem I have with invented names is they sound invented, and often quite stupid (Katniss Everdeen, for example. Or Four). If you’re writing contemporary, non-magical, non-speculative fiction, then making up names should be essentially off the table, unless you have a spectacular reason for your invention. The world already includes names like Ransom and Jceion—so please don’t add to the problem.
- Cultural names. These are names that you won’t find on the standard lists of popular baby names, but will find on lists like “Baby Names of Ireland”. I have zero problem with this, especially since it can help flesh out a character’s backstory.
- Mythological names. I consider this cultural names taken too far. With a few exceptions, names from mythology will sound either a) incredibly antiquated or b) too familiar. Zeus, Hera, Herakles, all fall into the latter category (whereas Gilgamesh falls into both). Frey sounds alright to me, and Aaron has passed into the common name category.
- Alliterative names. Please no—just no. The Sue Storms and Pepper Potts of the world really have no place in fiction, in my opinion. If I ever start to think alliterative names are a good idea, you have permission to slap me with a print-out of this article.
One great resource for character names and identities is fakenamegenerator.com. The site has several criteria you can use to refine the names it invents, and it comes up with several details that could be used to help give a character backstory.
Ready to make a case in defense of Shakespearean names? Do you think made-up names are a boon to fiction? If so, or if you’d like to respond to anything else, please leave a comment.