Naming Characters

A writing tip from Alan Orloff

So, you’re sitting down to bang out the next Great American Novel. Or maybe you’ve got your sights set on a piece of flash fiction. Either way, you’re going to need names for your characters. Looking for a “popular” name to call your 97-year-old great grandmother? Or perhaps you’re thinking about naming a two-year-old Bertha?

Good choice or bad choice? Of course, it depends on the effect you’re after.

But don’t make the choice without a little research.

Here’s a very pragmatic tip to help with that investigation:

When deciding on names appropriate for different-aged characters, I use an online tool provided by the Social Security Administration. Simply type in a birth year, and it lists the most common names, male and female, for people born in that year. Conversely, if you are considering a certain name, simply type it in and you’ll get a list of how that name has varied in popularity over the years. Pretty cool!

(By the way, Bertha hasn’t cracked the top 1000 names in the last 25 years, yet in 1911, it was the 36th most popular female name.)

Alan Orloff is the author of the Agatha Award-nominated novel Diamonds for the Dead. He also writes the Last Laff mystery series for Midnight Ink, Deadly Campaign and Killer Routine. Writing as Zak Allen, he’s published two ebook originals, The Taste and First Time Killer, with a third, Ride-Along, on the way.

Trey Powers never killed a cop before. Never had to. But after his cousin Jimmy has been framed and murdered by Officer Karla Cheng, one of Hafton Police Department’s finest, Trey has no choice. He must avenge Jimmy’s death, one way or another.

To get closer to his quarry, Trey joins the police department’s Citizen Action Team, and when a rival team member is killed, fingers point at Trey. Now, he’s the hunted one, and the harrowing race is on: Can Trey bring Cheng to justice before she frames him for murder? Or does something even worse?

Ultimately, Trey finds his life in jeopardy—along with the lives of those he loves—after embarking on a terrifying ride-along with Jimmy’s cold-blooded murderer.

Click on the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.


Stephen Parrish said...

Okay, I couldn't resist. In the last 100 years "Stephen" peaked at #19 for three years in a row: 1949-51. It's been steadily declining ever since, coming in at #229 in 2011. At this rate, Ignatius, Alphonso, and Beauregard will eventually leave Stephen in the dust.

Unknown said...

Great advice! I couldn't resist using that handy tool to pull up my son's name "Danger."

I wish more people used this to find names for their characters. There is nothing worse than a name that doesn't fit. One author used the name "Sal" for an older German man. I'm sure there is a German man out there named Sal, but it just left me confused. I live in Germany and the name just didn't sound right.

Wendy said...

My name is at a near all-time low. I'm feeling, now, like one of those kids that gets picked last at sports!

Alan Orloff said...

Steve and Wendy - Maybe names are like bell bottoms. If you wait long enought, they'll come back into fashion.

Clara - Perhaps Sal is a nickname for Wilhelm.