Using Names to Generate Stories

Friends, I had an epiphany. I’ll get to it in a moment, but first – try this: Pretend Romeo and Juliet were named Archibald and Beverly, Sherlock Holmes was George Paul Frank III, and Katniss Everdeen was changed her name to Trixie Smith. While we’re at it, Mr. Darcy prefers to be called Michael Matthews.

Yes, it’s awful and ridiculous. Yes, you can stop pretending now. I understand – I can’t live in that world very long, either.

We all know names are important. They are powerful. Your characters’ names can and should pull a reader’s memory back into the story, even years later.

So how do you pick the perfect name? Here are five tips to consider:

  • Is the name time-period-appropriate? For example, a 95 year old character in a novel set in present day probably wouldn’t go by the name Payton, since it wasn’t popular until the 1990’s. It’s always a good idea to check the name popularity by year at the Social Security Administration website.
  • Avoid names that are difficult to pronounce. I’m guilty of this faux pas, and I’ve sensed my readers struggle to communicate their thoughts about my book for fear they might offend me by mispronouncing my character’s name. Learn from my mistakes and make it easy on your readers to talk about your book to you and other people. How can they spread the word if they are embarrassed they’ll say the word wrong?
  • Along that same line, if you want to go all fantasy-ish with your names, go for it, but make it’s easy to pronounce. You could even mix two common names – like Robert and Adam – and get something unique, like Rodam or Adbert. Yes, those are lame, but you get the idea. It’s easy to get unique names. The hard part is making sure they’re not a filthy swear word in another language. (If you have an app for that, I’d pay to see it.)
  • Don’t use a given name to illustrate a character’s personality. Unless you are Charles Dickens, you risk writing thin characters by using this method. That’s what nicknames are for. For example, my given name is Jonathan, but my friends call me Sir-prance-a-lot™. Ahem. I know, I know, but it does tell you something about Jonathan, right?
  • Most importantly, name your characters whatever you want, despite what this post or any other more authoritative figure says. You are the author, and I’m not your boss – no matter how much you beg me to be.

Back to that epiphany. I was playing around with this handy dandy new tool when a question popped into my mind.

What would happen if

instead of finding names for my story,

I found stories for my names?

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It took about five seconds before I came across a name that sang to me. This name was so unique that it inspired an entire plot line. I finished the outline in a day and wrote the first chapter the next day. I am convinced this is going to be my best work yet. That’s the power of a good name.

This brings us to Writing Challenge #2 – Using Names to Generate Stories. Find a name that speaks to you. The Scribbleweed Name Generator should help. What does that name tell you about the person? Write any random thought down. You might be surprised what comes out of this exercise. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find your next book idea. Write up a quick story or character sketch and share it with us in the challenge forum.

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