And so with all things: names were vital and important. — Algernon H. Blackwood
NOTE: The following is my own particular bias about names as a reader and writer + name lists. This means that I can be totally wrong in my estimation of names in literature.
I am picky about names. No, I don’t just mean the names that I name my characters. I mean when I’m reading a book I can wrinkle my nose at some of the name choices that people give. I know that might be callous of me, but writers are the creators of beautiful prose and sometimes the choices for character names can get in the way of the prose. What exactly am I talking about? These are the sort of things that give me pause when I am reading a book:
- Very similar last names. For example, tons of last names that are also first names: Thomas, Evans, Matthews, etc.
- Names that don’t go together at all and seem like a hodge podge where the author literally pulled names out of a hat.
- Fantastical names that are too fantastical.
- When there are many characters with names that start with the same letter. ESPECIALLY if they are one of the main characters.
- When there are many characters with names that end with the same sound. (Dorothy, Melanie)
One thing that I always try to do when I’m writing a fantasy novel is try to choose names that are all from a certain ‘background.’ For example, I am very slowly world building my next project and all of the characters have Germanic names (Anika, Ingrid, Erik, Jakob…). Tolkien did the same with his, choosing names with a Welsh sound if they weren’t already Welsh. And I think the same can be done with other fantasy names. For example, George R. R. Martin often takes traditional names and gives them a twist to make them both new and comfortable to the reader all at the same time. I’m thinking of Rickon/Richard, Robb/Rob, Jeyne/Jenny. You can do the same with taking names from any region/background and giving them a slight twist instead of just English names!
Obviously I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a variety of names. Especially in a contemporary novel it is absolutely reasonable for people to be named in more varying backgrounds. But! I think that care should still be paid to the way that they sound together.
Okay, so enough about my thoughts on names, here are some great resources:
- Behind the Name. Perhaps the most helpful resource of them all, Behind the Name organizes names by type, gender, and has a great search function. There is also great information about diminutives and similar names.
- Popular Names by Decade. A must have for historical authors who are writing about books set in America from the 1880s and beyond! I use this website a lot.
- Nameberry. There is a lot of great info here, but one way to get some cool names that sort of fit a theme but stand strong on their own is to look at their lists.
- Family Education. Names by origin. This has some great names, but it doesn’t give you information as easily as Behind the Name does.
- Behind the Name. Again, Behind the Name organizes surnames by type and has a great search function.
- Family Education. Last names by origins. This has some great names, but it’s a pain to look through it for meanings. But if you’re just looking for particular sounds, this is where I’d go.