The Spam Treasure Trove: Finding the Perfect Name for Your Character

Here’s what’s been happening with me, writing-wise, ever since I wrote last about my latest writing goal to write for at least 15 minutes every day.

I got stuck. And I got stuck not because I wanted to be inspired and wasn’t, and not because I didn’t want to write – I got stuck because the next scenes to be written are from the POV of my other main character and his mentor – and while I can play and replay these scenes in my mind, in full color, with background music and all the right props, there was one thing I really, really needed to know … and didn’t.

Their names.

Because, you see, in those movie clips in my mind, my two characters don’t address each other by name. Which is perfectly natural – I mean, go back to any conversation you’ve had with someone you know well and see how many times you actually say their name in conversation. See what I mean?

But in the non-dialogue portion of my scenes, I’ve got to know their names. It’s kind of essential.

And nothing was coming to me.

So, rather than writing without knowing their names (it just doesn’t work for me), I dug out my copy of Character Naming Sourcebook, by Sherrilyn Kenyon; it’s been very helpful in the past, and I highly recommend getting a copy for your reference shelf.

This is a much better naming reference than a regular baby names book. It’s sorted into lists based on culture and ethnicity, so it’s really wonderful if you know a lot about your characters.

Since I’m a pantser, not a plotter, I don’t usually know my characters that well in the beginning. But I’ve always found it useful to just trust my intuitive powers and throw the book open to a page and see what jumps out at me.

I discovered my main character’s last name fairly quickly, although I still didn’t have a clue as to his first name. The next day, through some very cool bits of serendipity, I realized what his first name was, and even better, WHO he is, which then brought to me some new bits and pieces which will eventually get plugged into my storyline.

His mentor, though, stubbornly stayed nameless (I suspect this is an indication of his overall character). So this morning, I opened up my copy of the Character Naming Sourcebook and did my trusty “flip open to the right page because any page is the right page using this intuitive method”. And I came across this great tip by author Daniel Wallace:

Now I get my names from spam. That’s right: Those pesky unwanted e-mails are really the best place to find a name these days. All I have to do is look into the Deleted items folder of Outlook Express, and there are dozens – no, hundreds – of names, right there in the From field, perfect for any character I might want to write about.

Right now, there are 9501 emails in my junk mail folder. I use Thunderbird, which does a pretty good job of filtering out spam mail into the junk folder. Now, that does sound like a lot of emails, but unfortunately, a lot of spammers out there just aren’t very creative, so there are a lot of From lines that read something like “Free Viagra” and “Try Viagra for Free”.

But there are still enough real names to give this a shot.

Here’s just a small sample of some usable names I found:

Alaina Breann. Valrie Lanell. Karla Golden. Malinda Loretta – I don’t like Loretta for a last name, but Malinda … Malinda would work quite well for one of my minor characters, who’s right now saddled with a similar sounding name that I had grabbed at just so I could keep writing (which is something I do as long as the character is a secondary character).

There seems to be an imbalance of sorts, in that there are far more female names than male (my MC’s mentor is male) but scanning through the folder, I just found a name that has as its first name one I’ve been playing around with for the mentor. More serendipity – the last name goes very well with that first name.

So … success!

Now I’m going to sit down and write.

How do you come up with names for your characters?

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17 thoughts on “The Spam Treasure Trove: Finding the Perfect Name for Your Character

  1. patti

    I always name characters after real-life people!
    Often they ARE the characters in the book!

    My first novel even had such a disclaimer with the copyright.

    So far, people have loved it!!!

    I have weird friends, I think…
    Patti

    Reply
  2. Dorte H

    When I write in Danish, I am not sure I can use much from my spam folder. For some reason, most of it comes from Nigeria.

    For my cozy, I have used brand names; chocolate, candy, biscuits etc – really funny to select the right kind of name for the person, e.g. the cook, Mrs Vanilla McVities. For less humorous stories I think about which Danish names were common when the person was born. My children are often very helpful if I am grabbing desperately for a name.

    Reply
  3. Cruella Collett

    What a clever idea! I am terrible with names, and I know exactly what you mean. For my WiP I have had MAJOR issues with the name of the heroine. I have found one which fits in every possible way – etymology, origin, length, it fits with the other names in the book etc. But it just doesn’t FEEL right. I keep waiting for me to get used to it, or to come up with an alternative that hopefully will be love at first sight….
    As for the other characters, one of them is for now called “good” and one “bad”. Yeah. I struggle with names!
    .-= Cruella Collett´s last blog ..On dishes =-.

    Reply
  4. Memory

    When I worked for the university, I used to make note of any interesting names I came across. (First names only; we have strict information privacy laws in Manitoba, and I don’t want to run afoul of them). I’ve found a lot of interesting names that way. My favourites are Gavriel, Magali, Corwen, Mzilikazi and Nahlin.

    …only, I Googled Nahlin recently, just because I’m so terribly fond of it, and it turns out it’s not normally a person’s name. It’s a famous yacht, and I guess some people decided to name their kid after the thing.

    Oops.

    I think I’ll keep it, though. It does sound like a real name, and there’s at least one person named Nahlin kicking around out there.

    Reply
  5. Megan @Momlarky

    Wow! This exact same thing is LITERALLY happening to me RIGHT NOW. I am so relieved to know that other people feel stuck when they can’t find the “right” name!

    I’ve been using baby name books that have lists in them, and the Nameberry message boards. That Character Naming Sourcebook sounds like exactly what I need! Last names are always really hard for me to come up with without them sounding generic.
    .-= Megan @Momlarky´s last blog ..I Need To Get Out More =-.

    Reply
  6. Stephen Tremp

    I select names from whatever is around me at the time. I’ll look on books and take the first name from an author and the last name from another author and there you have it.

    I did put a little more effort into the name of my protagonist Chase Manhattan. Partly because he originally lived in Manhattan (changes to Laguna Beach, CA), and because I like the name. Manhattan has the word man in it. It also has the word hat. John Wayne wore a hat. Indiana Jones wore a hat. So I thought Manhattan was kind of an adventurous, tough guy name.

    It wasn’t until a few months later that I bestowed upon him the first name of Chase. I selected this name because he was either chasing down someone or something, or someone was chasing him. Hence: Chase Manhattan. Not to be confused with the financial institution, I looked in the White Pages in numerous large metropolitan areas and found quite a few residential listings for Chase Manhattan.
    .-= Stephen Tremp´s last blog ..A Win-Win Situation =-.

    Reply
  7. Shelley Sly

    What an awesome idea! Good thing we have spam emails, huh?

    I get some of my character names from attendance lists. I work in a school, and it’s easy to just look over and write down a few first or last names of students. It’s worked well so far!

    Reply
  8. Jenni

    I usually just make up names, for my last story I was looking at name generators and I saw one that was ok but I adapted it a little so its better.
    I often look outside for inspiration, Flowers, Types of Trees and plants can be good names.
    It’s easier to make up a name when you know the personality. but even though I know the personality of my new character, I still can’t think of name! Help!!!

    Reply

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