Call a player “Sycamore Flynn” or “Melbourne Trench”
and something begins to happen. He shrinks or grows,
stretches out or puts on muscle. Sprays singles to all fields
or belts them over the wall.
—Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.,
J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
No, this isn't about outing sock puppets. After the heated debate of yesterday on the issue of fake internet reviews, I thought a little cooling off—a palette cleanser, if you will—was in order.
(Actually, I'd already written the damn thing and I didn't have time to whip up another.)
So, gentle readers, let's turn our beautiful minds to the subject of character names—even though I'm sure some crank out there will read this and think what I'm secretly doing is giving everyone various ways to create pseudonyms for sock puppet villainy.
I'd rather shoot myself, frankly.
Anyhoo, here goes:
My favorite character name of all time comes from Richard Price’s Clockers: Buddha Hat.
No, he’s not a Zen milliner. He’s a drug enforcer. A bit counter-intuitive? Oh yeah. Ergo, perfect.
Best name I discovered in real life I couldn’t use because, well, a real person already owned it (and not a terribly nice person): Seth Booky.
Most writers will tell you choosing a name is one of the most crucial parts of a character’s depiction. Get the name right, so many other things just seem to fall into place. Get it wrong, everything else is a struggle.
Once you know the character’s name, once you can picture her vividly enough to know that a certain name suits her—or better yet, is intrinsic to her—you’re pretty much home free.
It's sometimes said we grow into our faces, coming to resemble our real selves as we reach our prime. I wonder if we don't also grow into our names: George Clooney. Hillary Clinton. Art Garfunkel.
A name can often substitute for a physical description if chosen wisely—think of the names from the TV series The Wire: Jimmy McNulty, Stringer Bell, Omar Little, “Proposition Joe” Stewart, Snoop Pearson, Bunny Colvin, Cutty Wise, Bunk Moreland, Bubbles.
And returning to Richard Price (who wrote for The Wire), there’s a man with a true knack for picture-ready names: Rocco Klein, Strike Dunham, André the Giant, Shorty Jeeter, Lorenzo Council, Little Dap Williams.
Other memorable character names:
Chili Palmer (Get Shorty)
Baby Suggs (Beloved)
Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Ed Punch and Al Catalog (The Shipping News)
Ree Dolly (Winter’s Bone)
Madeline Dare (A Field of Darkness)
Rooster Cogburn (True Grit)
Jenny Petherbridge (Nightwood)
That said, there’s an intriguing challenge in a seemingly lackluster name—Jim Williams, Jane Smith, John Harris. Such names, by denying you a unique visual image, force you to remember that the character can’t be confined to such an image. He’s more than that. And he’s going to change, even as his name doesn’t.
But where do I get really good names, I hear you cry.
There is of course every author’s friend, the Random Name Generator, which has the eminently useful “obscurity factor” for increasingly oddball names. (Anything over 5 puts you pretty much in Dickens territory).
There’s the Fake Name Generator, which also provides an address!
There is the Fantasy Name Generator, which doubles as a secret source for baby names among Trekkies: Pollyever, Belpaw, Untar, Ghal.
There is the Seventh Sanctum Name Generator (prepare to waste a day on this sucker).
And, as they say, so on. Just Google “random name generator” and stand back.
But I invariably find the best sources are those that give you names people really use. A computer can crank out nearly infinite possibilities, but the fact a loving mother actually said—Yep, that’s my baby’s name—makes a subtle, sneaky difference. At least it does for me.
Which is why I’ve sought out real-life sources for interesting names. And what I’ve discovered, quite by accident, is that sports provides some of the strongest or most unique names for both men and women available.
Don’t believe me?
Brandi Chastain. Serena Williams. Dakota Stone.
Jake Stoneburner. Pudge Cotton. Philander Moore (I’m not making that up.)
That’s a mere sample. Let me share with you a few more names of athletes I just found too intriguing not to tuck away for further use. (A gift from me to you.)
Note: You seldom want to steal a name wholesale, so consider this list a set of parts, with interchangeable first and last names.
Carolina Duer (great name for an assassin)
Christina Hammer (yes, she’s a boxer)
Ann Marie Saccurato
Okay, these are a little more offbeat. I gathered them from an article titled
Barkevious Mingo (my absolute favorite)
Wonderful Terrific Monds II
Leviticus Payne (close second)
Bacarri Rambo (my cocktail choice)
Konockus Sashington (second runner-up)
Fudge Van Hooser (I mean, really)
Now, I realize many of those names are "too weird not to be real," and thus problematic as character names, which have to be believable in a way real names don't. Reality always has the upper hand in weirdness, because it doesn't have to make sense.
But for secondary characters or just a walk on the wiggy side, this just might point you in a useful direction.
Oh, and one last thing: If you read an online review by Barkevious Mingo, it's not me. I promise.
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So, Murderateros — what are some of your favorite character names?
What are your favorite sources for names?
Have you grown into your name? Your face?
Do any of the names I’ve listed above suggest characters to you? Describe them for us.
Using mix-and-match, what character names have you been able to create from the above lists?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Bond. James Bond. Meet the Beatles: