You’re certainly not alone in this issue. So many of the writers I know dread naming pretty much anything – whether it’s coming up with a name for a character, or the name of the restaurant the characters have come to, or the title of the work. It’s not necessarily an easy thing. With that said, there are some things I’ve learned over the years to make things go a little more smoothly.
First, keep a list.
Some writers are adamant about not doing things like this, but I’ve always found this strategy helpful. If character names don’t come naturally to you, make a list. Don’t tie this list into any current on-going project, just make it a list for all names that could go with any future potential character you write.
It’s best to come in with no ideas for characters in mind. Pick names liberally. Go through name lists and write down all the names you like. You don’t have to look up their meaning or anything like that. They don’t have to be incredibly unique. I’ve got “John,” “Susan,” and “Mary Jane” on my list. All good names. It’s any name you might want to use.
I made my list pretty long, but I’ve never felt the need to make a new one. If a name for a character doesn’t come to me, I’ll pull out the list and read through until a name catches my eye. It’s a long enough list that there’s usually one on there that will work. If that name still doesn’t seem to fit, a lot of the time, it’s because there’s already another name I have in mind instead.
One thing I can’t say enough is try not to overthink it. Naming things in your writing project can be a kind of procrastination if you let it be.
I’m not above using name generators.
There are name generators online for just about everything. Need a name for a restaurant, there’s a generator for it. If I’m stuck and that seems like a quick-fix idea, why not? Often I’ll come up with a name on my own while clicking through things on a generator, but it’s a good way to actively start trying out names instead of spending hours staring at a page and not writing because you feel stumped.
There is nothing wrong with using a generator. If the name fits, it fits.
To change his name or not to?
One thing I’ve seen a lot of new writers do is change a character’s name halfway through writing something. It doesn’t actually matter to the reader if his name is “Steve” or “Joe” but for some reason it matters to the writer. Sure, there are valid reasons for changing a name in a manuscript and I won’t discount those, but most of the time when it happens it’s not actually necessary.
With that said, if I’m stumped early on in a project, the first things to go are the names of the characters. I know changing their names is not actually going to change the story all that much, but I have a reason for doing it. If I’m having trouble imagining a character or writing about them, often it is because the character in my head is not matching up to the character on the page. I need to get to know the character who is actually in my writing instead of the one I’ve imagined. They’re surprisingly pretty different, but that’s okay. Generally the one on the page is a lot more real.
When I change their name, I can let go of the character in my head and have a genuine first impression of them in my writing. I can get to know them the way a reader would. I might have some ideas about who they are, but I don’t really know that yet and changing their name sometimes is a good way to remind myself that I don’t know them yet.
What about titles?
I do not love titling things. The best titles seem to present themselves to me while I’m writing. I write something and I know what it’s called. That’s a great feeling. But most of the time, I write something and have no clue what to call it.
Good titles can be simple. Some writers I know prefer titles with few words, so they come up with one concept or a word that can speak to the piece as a whole. It usually encapsulates some key element of the story that works as an effective title. Some short title examples include: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, The Changeling by Victor LaValle, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, or The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
A lot of titles I love are adjective + noun combinations. Similar to the super short titles, but often the adjective gives is a little more pizzazz. Like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, or The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt.
Some titles are quotes or phrases, like The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, or A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.
Lastly, some great titles announce an event that prompts the story, which sounds like a strange idea but some of the title examples are fantastic. We’ve got The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, or Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.