How to Name the Voices in Your Head

Written by Kathryn Olsen | September 19, 2013

I come from a family of four kids with a Danish-Norwegian patronymic surname.  From oldest to youngest, our first/middle name combinations are of the following origins: French/Hebrew, Greek/Greek, Roman/English and English/English.  Our parents’ names are English.  My five nephews have names ranging from Greek to Irish.  The moral of this story is that not all families follow a pattern in their naming conventions.

Your friendly neighborhood author-with-a-Greek/Greek/Danish-Norwegian-patronymic-name grew up in Massachusetts.  Because of the religious and cultural melting pot that is Boston, many of my classmates had names that fit into one of the following categories:  1) Saints’ names 2)  “Old-world” names 3)  Foreign names.  The “weirdest” name I ever saw assigned to a Massachusetts kid was Carlee and that was because she was delivered in the back seat of the family Honda.

Then I graduated from high school and came to Brigham Young University.  I discovered that, outside of New England, there was an entirely different naming culture.  Five girls studied at BYU from my area and four of them had roommates named Amber.  Because Utah baby names are literally a trend of their own, I was friends with Nyla (Her parents were from NYC and LA) and Raven (her older brother got to pick the name when he was three).  My roommate was Chesnye.  I was suddenly grateful that my parents had picked something as ordinary as Kathryn.

Like many of you, I sometimes have to work hard to find an appropriate name for the fictional character walking around in my head.  I’ve put together some guidelines that I hope will be helpful.  For simplicity’s sake, these are specifically geared towards people writing American characters from any time period.  You can take the basic ideas and use them for other worlds, nationalities or backgrounds.

Suggestion #1:  Consider the religious background.  As I mentioned, many of my classmates and friends had names like Martha, Bridget, John-Paul, Edward, Patrick, etc.  That had a lot to do with the Irish-Catholic and Roman-Catholic congregations that are so present in the Boston area.  Likewise, I had a Jewish friend named Aaron and an Evangelical Christian friend named Micah.  If your character comes from a particular religious background, make sure you are true to that.  I once named a Catholic character Ella and had to do my research to make sure that it was all right for her to be christened with a saint’s name as her middle name.  I mentioned the Utah baby names before and therefore have known of children named Prophet and Mahonri.

Suggestion #2:  Be true to the cultural heritage.  I mentioned the “Old-world” and foreign names separately.  I know a lot of Armenian-Americans from Massachusetts and their names range from the fairly-common (Tanya) to the undeniably imported (Vana).  My Hispanic friends often have the same history behind their name.  I’ve known girls named Jose Maria, but once spoke to a woman who identified herself as “Virgin” and spelled it Virgen, as in La Virgen de Guadalupe.  All of them were born here to immigrants who wanted to honor their heritage.  On the other hand, I befriended a Czech immigrant named Magdalena who was so recently arrived that she could tell me stories about life in Czechoslovakia.  Consider, also, if your characters have “Americanized” names, such as my friend Grace, whose given name is Soon-Kyong Pak, or the protagonist of In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, who elects to be renamed Shirley Temple Wong upon her immigration to 1940’s America.

Suggestion #3:  Use the government.  One of the greatest resources available on the internet is the U.S. Census Data.  I am a semi-closeted fan of the show Pretty Little Liars, so decided to see if any of the characters’ names showed up on the list of the 100 most popular names for 1995.  I looked for Aria, Spencer, Toby, Caleb, Mona, Jenna, etc.  Hannah and Emily are the only ones listed, ranking at #7 and #3, respectively.  Census data should not discourage you from getting creative, but if you’re looking for an easy list of name ideas, you can browse these lists.  Besides, if you dig a little deeper than 100, you can find anything from Anika to Zhane.

Suggestion #4:  Have a story behind the name.  Dad claims that he had liked the name Kathryn since reading Wuthering Heights on his honeymoon and I like that idea, even if Mom denies the story.  I am looking forward to writing one of my characters who introduces herself as Carp Milligan because her parents are huge Dracula fans and ran out of names before they ran out of kids, so named her Carpathia Seward.  (Her brother Harker is the only one allowed to call her Carpathia because he is dyslexic and prone to addressing letters to his dear sister Crap.)  When all else fails, let the parents of your character talk to you about their favorite books, movies or bands.  Are they the types to name their firstborn Axl, like Fergie?  Were they Twilight Moms who insisted on naming their fraternal twins Jacob and Renesmee?  A friend of mine named her brother and sister characters Jason and Jaina, which was unsurprising given her love of the Star Wars books featuring Jacen and Jaina Solo.  My brother is named after my uncle and a couple of my father’s friends, all of whom were named Reed Elliot.

In the end, go with your instincts.  If your character wants to be Zane Frederickson or Delightra Moore, go for it.  Make sure that the character in your head answers to that name.

Bio: 

Kathryn Olsen is your average office drone. She works 40 hours a week to pay for rent, food and the occasional fantastic trip. She comes home and watches too much TV for her own good. In her spare time, she works on the 30+ book ideas that are running loose in her head and writes for WhatCulture.com if there isn’t a Red Sox game on. Born in Texas and raised in Massachusetts, Kathryn studied English at Brigham Young University. She has no husband or kids, but is a doting aunt to five awesome nephews. Visit her blog here.