If you've read one of my Mary-Sue guides, specifically Romeo and Gertrude?, then you already have an idea of how I name my characters, but I decided to make a separate guide illustrating it all step-by-step because I keep seeing people asking for names, and I just can't fathom why they just don't look up baby naming sites themselves. What makes this even more annoying for me is, as much as I would love to pick out names for them, they don't set up any parameters or limitations or even give any hints as to which kind of names would be acceptable. As much as diversity is needed, people still write main characters as caucasian, so people assume as much and list a bunch of names that are European of origin (specifically English) or names that are biblical, or Hebrew, but then this person comes out and says that they were looking for more unique names for their African-American character because African-Americans are well known for mixing and matching up names to give to their child. Then there's me who randomly picks and chooses names from all over the globe and then I seem too "out there" and I'm of no help anyway. It's just frustrating because, here I am, willing to help, but with no sets of rules or even a hint at the character's ethnicity, I can't help because I don't know what you're looking for.
Naming characters doesn't have to be complicated, but it shouldn't be as simple as blindly pointing and then accepting whatever you pointed at no matter how "unusual" it is.
So when I'm on the forums, and I see threads that say they need help with names, I either don't bother clicking on it, or I give them a link to a baby name site. I love Think Baby Names because it's neat and tidy, and the pages aren't overloaded with too much information. It even tells you an estimated date that the name was first used, so for anyone writing period pieces can know when names possibly didn't exist back then. However, since I bought myself a baby name book, I haven't used that site at all, because most of the information I need is in it, but if I need to look up when the name was first used, Think Baby Names or Behind the Name is my best bet.
For this guide, I'll be using The Complete Book of Baby Names by Lesley Bolton. I bought this book at a used book store, so this is the 2005 edition, which means that newer names in the last decade aren't included, but that's OK with me. If you want a more up-to-date book, that's fine, because the information and steps can apply to any other book and even websites. As a writer I do have fairly specific rules, which I summarized in Romeo and Gertrude?, but I think that each writer should have their own rules, so while I will go into detail on my rules, don't treat my guide as scripture and say that this is the only way to choose names. It's not. I'm writing this for people to get an idea of how I do things, and maybe they'll get an idea on how to do things in their own way. Bolton's book also has a few typos, but once I figured out which ones were correct and incorrect, it's easy to discern which name is which origin.
Obviously, this book doesn't have every single name ever used on this planet before 2005, so other sources would be needed if you find that there isn't a sufficient array of names within a single origin. For example, this book has plenty of Japanese and Chinese names, so I would feel comfortable using only this book for a while, but I have printed out lists of Japanese names and Chinese names just in case.
Don't be fooled and think that this book only has lists of names, origins and their meaning, along with variant spellings of the name, Bolton also give some tips when naming your child (which I actually agree with enough to feel comfortable as adopting them into my personal writing rules), gives some history lessons, especially concerning how African-Americans were named as slaves, and how African-American's later named their own children, and she has 276 charts on popular names in various categories, such as Top Ten Most Popular Irish names or Top Ten Most Popular Philosopher names.
First I prepare and set up my book in a way that makes it easy to flip through pages to find the names with specific origins.
I wrote down every single origin in a list (mentally correcting typos as I went), and then categorized them as North American, South American, Australian, Oceanic, European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian, and Oriental. This just made it easier to focus on one region at a time. I then further categorized each origin under either language, country, tribe, or region. Mind you, some of them would fit under more than one category.
For example, while Ireland, Scotland, Northern Spain, North-West France, and England, would be under countries, English, Gaelic, Spanish, Breton and French would be languages that are often spoken in those countries, and they all reside in the Celtic region. Tribes would be specific groups of people within the countries, but I couldn't really find any "tribes" in the Celtic region. Also, while there are more than one kinds of Gaelic, I found that each kind is more like a different dialect, rather an entirely other language, so while there could would be differences, some words might me different, they would be similar enough where each speaker could roughly understand each other. Sort of like Japanese reading Chinese and vice versa. Some of the origins are districts within a country, like Brittany, France, which the origin would be Bretagne.
In Bolton's book, there's English and Old English in the language categories, but there is a major difference to take note of. Old English is basically another term for Anglo-Saxon, which is not automatically any country that speaks English. While Anglo does refer to English speaking, Saxon refers to two Germanic tribes that invaded Briton, so Anglo-Saxon refers specifically to a region within Britain. So while a character may be British, not all British are Anglo-Saxons. And Old English and Anglo-Saxon are not within the Celtic region.
There are also some origins that are era sensitive, as in there are recorded names from people in history in an extinct region. For example Babylonian, refers to the city Babylon in the Mesopotamian region, which was in a narrow part of modern Iraq between the 18th century BC to 3rd century BC. Phoenician is another ancient origin referring to the region in modern Lebanon, and some parts of modern Syria and Israel. There are some discrepancy as to the earliest time the Phoenicians founded themselves between about 3,000 BC and 1,200 BC and then lasted until about 320 BC. One possibility for the vague beginning years was that the Phoenicians might have blended in with the surrounding people, that it was hard to find distinctions between the Phoenicians to the surrounding people. I bring this up because if you're planning on writing a story that takes place in around this time, then these names could certainly be useful. Then again, there's only a few names each, so what would I do? I would look up other older names within the same region. For example, for Babylonian, I would look up the oldest Iraqi or Arabic names.
Some names are originally of one origin, but another origin adopts the name and spells it in accordance to the pronunciation of their language, thus there are several different forms of names in different origins, such as Hebrew "Elizabeth" and Spanish "Isabel."
Sometimes different origins seem to be the same, but they're not. For example, there's Arabic, and Arabian. Arabic refers specifically to the language, which are spoken in Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Palestine, and Western Sahara, and Arabian refers specifically to countries: United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia (all within the Middle East).
It's better to know that one ASAP, because the next step took me forever to fix.
So once I finished with the categorizing, and map-making in the form of lists of which countries were associated with which origin, and which origin was a language that was spoken in which country, yada yada, I wrote down all of the origins in alphabetical order, and then wrote down which page number each origin appeared on. Lots of work, and it took forever, especially with that drastic mistake with Arabic and Arabian, but this makes it easier to find specific origins that I need on which page. Of course, I separated the page numbers in accordance to which letter the name starts off with. Since Bolton's book is in English, the names were written also in English, despite the origin, and were alphabetized. The book made it even easier because it was also separated by gender. I would have also liked that unisex names were separated, but that's just because it would make my life easier and less work. Personally, I just kept it between boy-girl, but if you want a separate list of page numbers, specifically for unisex names, all the more to you.
This finishes up the basic set up and now I can start choosing names for my characters.
Before I tell you that though, there are a few things I must say. I would not trust any names under Native American or any specific Native American tribes, nor would I trust any names under any tribes in the African region, such as Ibo or Zulu. "Native American" names found in baby name books or websites are notorious to being false, and most of the time aren't associated with any tribe specifically. To be honest, as I've read articles say, you're best bet would be to get a translation dictionary and find a noun you like. I still don't know anything about African tribal names, and I would assume that the names listed aren't accurate either, much for the same reason as Native American names. Australian also has aborigine tribes, which may also present similar problems as the other two.
I also wouldn't trust any names with the origin of "Asian," "Australian," or "African," and the likes. I can sort of understand "African"--there's over 7,000 tribes, so it could be really hard to pin point which tribe it derives from, but to leave it in such general terms as that? I would rather find a list of real, documented people, and use their name if I ever get around to writing a story with aborigine African characters. "Asian" names don't really get a free pass from this over generalization because northern, eastern, western, and southern countries in the continent are all quite different.
Also, even to modern times, some immigrants to the USA also choose another name to be called by, because their birth name may be difficult to pronounce or so their alternative name could give them a better chance to get a job because people with foreign names have a lower chance of getting a job. In other words, you may need to choose another name.
You also need to keep in mind of naming customs. Unlike most Westerners, places like Korea, Chinese and Japanese have their family name arranged first, and their given names second. None of them also use middle names, even if the full name looks like it. For example, some Chinese family names seem to be two words, and for some Americans this can be confusing, thus some immigrants might add a hyphen. There are also Chinese rules to do with the meaning of the names and that certain combinations of names wouldn't be acceptable or appropriate, but I'm not a hundred percent sure of those rules. You might want to consult with fluent Chinese people in this area.
Traditional Spanish—at least in the Central and South American region – naming customs are fairly more complicated. They don't use middle names but most have two surnames, and some have two, or three, first names. Starting with surnames, the first name used is the paternal name, and the second is the maternal name. This means that the paternal name is the child's father's paternal surname, and the maternal name is the mother's paternal name. For example, let's say that the father's surname is Rodriguez Sein and the mother's surname is Nasario Flaminio. Their child's surname would be Rodriguez Nasario, so the mother's paternal name becomes the child's maternal name. For the first name, it is fine to choose only one, but there are some parents who give their child two, and it just really depends how the names are given, such as the parents choose one and the grandparents choose another, or the parents decide to have their child baptized and they give their child the names of the saints. It was thought that the more saints the child was named after, the more protected they were. So, for this example, let's go with Ignacio Xavier Rodriguez Nasario.
Naming customs tend to also have connections with marriage customs—or even a lack of marriage. Like the previous example, Spanish whom are married don't change their names. Ariana Miyamoto, the Miss Japan for 2015 is half African, and half Japanese where her mother is Japanese. There could be a couple factors as to why Ariana took her mother's surname instead of her father's. First, usually Japanese women who have children when she isn't married to the father, the children take their mother's last name. Second, Ariana's mother and father could be married, but because Japanese birth certificates usually use kanji, it could be that it was just easier to use the mother's name.
Americans sort of use their own customs depending on the family. It could stay traditional where the mother takes the father's name at marriage and the children take the father's name, or the family could make up their own rules. Sometimes the mother doesn't take the father's name at marriage, and the children can have the mother's, father's, or even both of their names. When the parents aren't married, the children could have either parent's names or, again, both. It really isn't that unusual.
Some cultures don't have middle names. The Spanish name that I used in the example, Ignacio Xavier Rodriguez Nasario, Ignacio Xavier is the first name, and Rodriguez Nasario is the last name. Of course this can be confusing for Americans, whether the child was born in the USA or became immigrants, so hyphens are usually added and the second first name can be considered the middle name. So it could be Ignacio-Xavier Rodriguez-Nasario or Ignacio Xavier Rodriguez-Nasario. To be honest, at least in the USA, middle names aren't a big deal, and they seem to be only truly needed if somehow the combination of first and last name are common, so the middle name is used in order to tell you apart from all the other John Does and Jane Smiths. At most that is usually asked for on most documents is the first initial of your middle name. As for "customs," there really isn't one. The middle name could be a relative, or just some other random name. Most of the time, I don't bother with last names for my characters, but it's always something to keep in mind.
I kid you not, though, my father wanted to name me Harley Davidson [last name] (yes, after the motorcycle). I think that would have been totally awesome, but my mom had to ruin it and tell the nurse to drop the "r" and put my middle name after some aunt I've never met who died of cancer. How morbid. At least if my name was Harley, people would have known how to pronounce and spell my name no problem, and I wouldn't have been confused at role-call when there were other kids whose name rhymed with mine. Oh well. Let's move on.
It's always handy to keep a journal with these sort of notes in companionship with the baby naming book, especially if you plan on writing about families whose ethnicity is different from yours.
Now comes the steps on exactly how I choose the names.
If you remember playing the MASH or CASH game when you were smaller, then that's great. Explaining this to you should be a problem then. If you don't know this game, I assure you that it's simpler than how I explain it. Basically this was a kiddies fortune telling trick (not to be taken at all seriously since the answers were usually very exaggerated).
First you set the game up by drawing a hollow square and write MASH or CASH on the top wall. MASH stands for mansion, apartment, shack and house while CASH merely substituted mansion for castle. From top to bottom next to the right wall, outside of the square, I usually wrote the four people I had a crush on, which would represent whom I would marry. At the bottom, below the square, I put four numbers, which represented how many kids "we" would have. On the left wall, I would list the four vehicles that I may drive in the future. Preparation is complete.
Then you would write little lines, and then stop at any time. I usually liked waiting until the box was filled up just to have my friends get tired of counting—because there will be a lot of counting. Then you count up the lines, write the total inside the square and circle it. This ensures that you won't lose the number while you count and recount.
After that, you start with M or C in MASH or CASH, and start counting until you land on the total. You cross out whatever you land on and then count again from that spot. Keep going around the square until you have one of each of the four sections, circling whatever's left so you don't mistakenly count them while counting around the square, and there you have it.
My method for choosing, well, everything is based on that simple game. Names are just the tip of the iceberg. I use this method for the character's physical description, clothes, order of events in a story, and even just simple things like who kisses who first and whether or not it was an accident, or what this character thinks of that character. That game I use is extremely versatile, but the best part is I can choose things in bulk. Instead of flipping coins or rolling dice to choose one thing, I can just use the MASH or CASH game to choose several things at once. While it can be quite tiring, I feel it's rewarding.
All you have to do is substitute MASH/CASH, your crushes, the numbers, and the vehicles with the pertinent information, and there you go. The rules in counting stay the same.
Box A: First I insert the origins from the list (there are about 120), and the gender of the character.
Box B: After that box is done, I make another box. This time with the origins in connection with the origin that was randomly chosen in Box A, such as if you chose Celtic in Box A, you would also put Irish, Scottish, Gaelic, English, Spanish, Breton, etc. in this box, and I list these origins repeatedly until I fill the quota depending on the naming customs. For example, I would choose two for Japanese, Chinese or Korean names, and up to five for Spanish names. Three is a good average though. After each of these sections I would list male, female or unisex as their own sections except for the last section which would automatically be male. I find that most traditional last names are under the male section, so this just makes it easier. So let's just say that Gaelic is the first name, English is the middle name, and Scottish is the last name.
Box C: Make another box and list the letters in which the names of the chosen origins (Box B) start with. Some origins don't reside in all twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, so some letters can be skipped. Some origins are only in the male section, so if female was chosen for that origin, I would either choose another origin (especially if the character is female and the origin happened to be in the first name section), or I would just stick with the male name. My example would be the Gaelic name starts with S for the males, the English name starts with A, female, and the Scottish name starts with M, male.
Box D: You can do two things. If you really want to make it interesting, you can go through each of the letters and list every name of that origin, and you'd be done. Sometimes names in those origins are just too many, and not everyone has that kind of patience. For Box D, you could list the page numbers the origin in that letter resides in, and then create another box.
Box E: Basically just list the names of that origin on that specific page number. Sometimes there's just one, and other's can be five or more.
If for any reason, the name doesn't work, such as it is against the naming custom, you are allowed to change it, or start the process over, but this is just here to help you out, or at least give you all an idea on how to choose names. Like I said before, I've seen people use coins and dice, or point blindfolded. I just personally don't want to go through the entire book looking for names with specific meanings because that would take longer than the couple of hours I spend using my method. Name meanings can be important, especially concerning the naming customs like the Chinese, but at least this gives me a start so I can look for a consultant in regarding foreign names. At least I have a name to write my story with so I can replace it later with the more appropriate name.
I hope this was helpful and that this was somewhat easy to understand. I didn't just want to give you all the answers because (1) I certainly don't have all of the answers and I won't even pretend to, and (2) I wanted you to take your time to do your own research so you can find articles that can explain all this stuff better than I can. Plus I could misconstrue stuff and be wrong. Just saying. Enjoy your names!