Beyond the Phone Book or Computer Name-Generators: Selecting Character Names

This is a very fitting blog post topic from Tracey Kathryn as she shifts to using her pen name T.K. Sheffield. We'll be getting the same awesome writerly wisdom in her guest posts (that we've enjoyed nearly once a month for the past three years), but future posts will come from T.K. Sheffield. Scroll to the bottom to get the latest on her writing adventures and her new website introducing her mystery series! 

What’s in a name?

For me, it’s anything but sweet. Or the process of naming novel characters, that is. One of the hardest things for me to do is come up with names for the people in my books. (The other is finding comparable titles for my work, but that’s a problem for a different blog post.)

There are great sources to discover character names, including websites, computer programs, and writing software. I use Scrivener, which has an onboard name generator. It helps—sometimes.

Those sources don’t usually work because I’m not inspired when reading through a list of names. A static process of reading a list of faceless, contextless names just doesn’t work for me. I have to get up and move and think. Maybe my restlessness when it comes to finding names is tied to my appreciation for sports and a childhood fascination with some of the great names I remember seeing on our little black-and-white T.V.: Johnny Unitas, Jan Stenerud, and Bart Starr. (Plus, those interesting nicknames!)

While I’m not promising that you’ll find the best names ever for your literary characters, I propose unique ways to find them. I combine physical movement with name inspiration. I often remind my writing students to get away from the keyboard when they’re stuck. I tell them to let the subconscious work on a writing problem rather than dwell on a blank page. When it comes to selecting character names, I use that advice.

So, I’ve come up with actions that assist with selecting character names. Those actions include strolling through cemeteries, visiting antique malls, and walking through botanical gardens.


Besides exercise and fresh air, walking and pondering ideas through a cemetery is enlightening. I have found astonishing names using this method. Some names (or versions of them) I’ve used, others I’ve just admired. I’ve also appreciated others’ lives, thanked them for the service to our country, and held back tears at some of the stories told in granite.

You may be surprised at the names you’ll discover. It doesn’t have to be a full name. Perhaps it’s a unique first or last. Maybe a character pops to mind as soon as you read an inscription. The walk should be inspirational, peaceful. I don’t fear cemeteries. I find them quiet, mystical places that are reminders to embrace what’s important in life. In addition to studying names, the stroll around a cemetery serves as peaceful inspiration, a time away from computers, phones, and daily stress.

Shopping and Antique Malls

Wisconsin’s winter lasts about nine months, so outdoor strolling has its limits. While my gym has a walking track, it doesn’t provide visual inspiration. So, I’ve wandered through malls and stores that offer space to move about while reading signage or product names. There’s an antique mall in Oconomowoc that’s huge. I’ve gotten delightfully lost in Fox Lake Country Antique Mall. The store features booth after booth of antiques, signs, old postcards—definitely worth checking out for unique monikers!—and everything else. It’s a fabulous place to conduct name research. Walk in the door thinking about a character; come out hours later with name ideas plus a vintage goodie or two.

The same for Gaslight Square Antique Mall in Minocqua. There are retail stores on the lower floor of the mall, but I recommend heading upstairs to the trove of record albums, vintage signs, and old magazines that will inspire you to consider names for characters.

Botanical Walks

Who doesn’t enjoy a walk through a garden? Consider heading to a local botanical garden such as the Boerner Gardens in Hales Corners or Olbrich Park in Madison, and read the names of the plants. Read the history of the place. Read whatever is nearby. You may be pleasantly surprised at the connections your mind makes with your characters while strolling among beautiful flowers. You don’t even need to be in a fancy garden. Go to a greenhouse. Study the plants. Spend time reading the names. Breathe in the fragrance of the flowers—or a quick, short scent of the compost, perhaps. What comes to mind may be perfect for the person you’re creating in your book.

The point is to allow your mind its creative freedom. Let the subconscious make connections that it can’t while you’re sitting at a computer.

I hope these outside-the-norm ideas assist with your character name search. If you’re stuck—and need exercise—stroll through a cemetery, visit an antique mall, or check out a garden. Of all the writing processes, names are one of the most difficult for me. But combining physical exercise with a name hunt helps. Plus, I get the bonus of adding up those daily steps!

Additional Articles

For more information on choosing character names, check out "Eight Tips for Creating Brilliant Character Names," which looks into historical context, era, and name meanings and a discussion about character names with Kristin Oakley and Valerie Biel. They talk about cratylic names, those that express a unique character trait and much more. 

Happy summer—and happy naming—all. Tracey Kathryn, MA

P.S. There is a delightful new bookstore in southeast Wisconsin! If you’re in the Genesee Depot area, check out the fabulous new place on Highway 83, just south of the Union House restaurant. Rare Vision Books just opened, and it is a treat. All types of books, used, rare—or simply fabulous. It’s a delight to stop in, browse, and purchase a few favorites. I picked up a Sue Grafton that I’d never read. And stop at This & That at The Mill, a wonderful craft-and-upcycled treasures store, which is located behind the bookstore. After shopping, stop at Mama Ds for coffee or lunch.

Feel free to comment and let us know what book you found—enjoy!

P.P.S. I’m delighted to announce that I have a new website, Matt Gerber Designs out of Delafield—highly recommended—created a new site for the mystery series I’m pitching. Take a peek, subscribe to the site; I’d be happy to answer questions about the process if you have any. I’ll write a blog post about writer’s websites in the future. (Also, I’ve included my special recipe for brandy old-fashioneds on my blog, if you’re a fan of the drink—check it out!)

Take care ~TK

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