Finding names

Are you a writer who loves naming your characters, and inventing a good place for your characters to live?

Or do you struggle to find anything good?

For me, it’s the most exciting bit of a new book. Often it’s the names that come first, and the characters reveal themselves once they have an identity. I’ll spend hours happily trawling through directories and gazeteers and lists looking for something that leaps off the page and grabs me by the throat.

But if you find it hard to invent names, how do you find them? Names can make a big difference to your story. Bland names don’t help to fix your characters in readers’ minds, which makes it less likely that they’ll recommend your books to friends. If they can’t remember who’s in it, it doesn’t say much for the book, does it? Having said don’t be bland, I have to point a finger at Harry Potter. Bland, ordinary and dull, compared to the rest of the characters – Dumbledore, Filch,Hagrid and the others – even the minor character Arabella Figg. The very dullness of Harry’s name is a disguise which fools even him. For 11 years he thinks he’s ordinary, dull, unlovable, forgotten… but he and the readers discovers this was nothing close to the truth. Rowling was making her characters’ names work hard for their existence.

I went to school (truly) with a Begonia Lugg. She’d get a job at Hogwarts with a name like that. Glorious.

finding names for your novel or screenplay, where do you get your ideas?
A good name to filch. Hundsbrücke in Forchheim, Germany (Pic credit: Abbs Pepper)

Travel is a great name-finding exercise. How about this street sign in Forchheim? If you have a German or Austrian connection in your book, keep the German, Hundsbrücke, or translate it as Houndsbridge or Dogsbridge. There is Houndslow, Hound Green and Houndwood in Britain, but no Houndsbridge. All yours.

Driving from Dundee to Glasgow once, I passed a road sign to Findo Gask. Findo Gask! What a name! The place was no more than a hamlet – a few houses just off the main road. But in my head Findo Gask was immediately a villain, the teenage son of a vicar, who sang in the church choir but bore more resemblance to a demon than a cherub. Findo lurked in my notebook, waiting for the right story. Then by chance I bought a book – Angel Fire East – by Terry Brooks, and a few pages in discovered, to my immense irritation, that he’d had much the same thought. His Findo Gask was a dark and magical villain; not only that but he named a monster in the same book the Maentwrog – which is a small village in North Wales not far from Portmeirion. Either he was driving round Britain on holiday, or he went raking through the British road atlas. I gnashed my teeth, but told myself a) he got there first and b) is a mega-seller and c) I’m not.

Not that every story demands outlandish names – far from it. Tarquin Throstlethicket might fit into a Wodehousian comedy or a lighthearted fantasy story, but there won’t be many of them working in a stationery shop in the high street, under cover for the Secret Service or being heroically romantic in a love story.

Though even in a relatively ordinary setting, names don’t have to be bland, and they shouldn’t be famous, in case the famous namesake takes offence and calls their lawyer.

names on a wall
Memorial (Photo credit: Jasmic)

Finding the right name can take a while, or it can strike like summer lightning. If your characters are staying mulishly anonymous, you might find inspiration in these pages. You’ll find the place name generator, a list of 109 names derived from old trades and professions, a table of surnames, nicknames, boys’ and girls’ first names, all derived from flowers and plants– and more will be added as I make new lists.

Places can make good surnames, and surnames can become places, so mix and match to suit your story.

Click on the links below to go to the lists.

Authors’ place-name generator

Surnames from ancient trades

Names from flowers and plants

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