I can brainstorm an entire story using words like hero, heroine, hero’s best friend, heroine’s mother, the bad guy, etc. But once I start actually writing, I need names for my characters. And thinking off the top of my head, my brain tends to freeze and come up with nothing.
So, sitting on my desk within arm’s reach, I have The Last Word on Baby Names by Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran and The Baby Name Survey Book: What People Think About Your Baby’s Name by Bruce Lansky and Barry Sinrod. I picked up these particular books years ago when I was pregnant. While they have outlived their purpose in my personal life, they have become a staple in my writing life.
There are no “rules” for naming characters, but over the years I’ve incorporated some guidelines that I hope make for a better reading experience.
The names of the hero and heroine begin with a different letter. If possible, I try to have every character in the book start with a different letter. Although I sometimes have secondary characters with the same beginning letter, I try not to do it too often. Anything I can do to help the reader keep the characters straight translates into a better reading experience and more enjoyment of my books.
Give names a different cadence and length. No to Melanie and Valerie. No to Kate and Nate. No to Max, Sam and Pat. Yes, to Melanie, Kate and Samantha.
In the front of The Baby Name Survey Book, there is a “First Impressions of Girl/Boy Names.” I often use this as a starting point. If my heroine is smart (and what heroine isn’t??), I look at the list of “smart” girl names and see if any of them speak to me.
For last names, I try to follow similar guidelines. I often use this website of common surnames to come up with possibilities.
If you start with a character name and later realize it is less than ideal, “find and replace” is a wonderful word processing feature. When I sold the proposal for A Man Worth Fighting For, the heroine’s name was Cassie. Two-thirds of the way through writing the book I had to change it. Two secondary characters in the Wiccan Haus world already began with a C, and having them both in the same scene with her was too much C for me. A consultation with my baby name reference books and a quick “find and replace all,” and Cassie was reborn as Holly.
One final caveat: “Find and replace” is wonderful for most names, but be careful if you have a character named Matt that you want to change to, say, George. Everywhere you used the word “matter” in your manuscript, it is suddenly going to read “georgeer.”