So let's talk about names. Real names, like the ones real human people have. Think about your second grade teacher. Now think about your congressman. Now think about your grandma. Now think about your childhood dentist.
Okay, here are mine:
- JoAnn Hutsell
- Mike Quigley
- Imogene Lamber
- William Sentiere
Compare that to your list. Do you see any Susie Smiths or Bob Johnsons? Probably not (though, if so, my apologies to Dr. Smith). One of my biggest pet peeves is the use of generic names that you basically never encounter in real life. Why water down your writing and take users out of the experience with lame names? Don't settle for Betty Bates. You can find millions of examples of realistic names in, well, reality.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love Smiths. Some of my best friends are Smiths. But there's nothing that makes me roll my eyes harder than a character named Sally Simpson who lives at 123 Main Street in Anytown, USA. That sounds like a town where the mayor is a bipedal dog.
There are so, so, so, so many more interesting names out there to pick from. We use fake names a lot in custom e-learning, whether they're simulated customers, coworkers, or anyone else you might need to interact with. But we can all get better at fake names. Our screenplays, our short stories, even our tweets—they all need names sometimes. So why not pick a fake real name?
RIP OFF REAL LIFE (THEN TWEAK IT)
One of my favorite ways to come up with names in real life, personally, is to think of real people in my life and then either mix and match first/last names or come up with analogs (e.g., Sara to Ana, Marquez to Gutierrez). It's far from an exact science, but it lets me keep things real without opening me up to litigation from my high school girlfriend (let's call her Ana Gutierrez).
You can pull inspiration from anywhere. Old classmates, friends of friends, historical figures, elected officials. Real life is generally much better than we are at generating realistic-sounding names. To be fair, it's had a lot of practice.
I'd also recommend checking out lists of common names. There are plenty out there. I just ask that you please, please skip the top 10 or 20 and get down into the more interesting ones. Obviously, real names can be real weird sometimes, and it may be a little distracting if you pick something that's truly bizarre. But pick a number between 100 and 1000 and you might end up with a realistic name you'd never have thought of otherwise.
KEEP THINGS DIVERSE
Here's one of the other big problems with the lazy default names I griped about above: they're all overwhelmingly Anglo. When you pick lame names like those, you're creating an environment that's not just bland, it's painfully non-diverse. Keep things interesting and realistic with surnames from other cultures, with first names that are modern, with less traditional first/last name pairings. It's a better reflection of the world we live in today; you're a lot more likely to meet a Lucas Chen than a Janie Jones.
And by the way, can we cool it with the alliteration? Yes, some people have alliterative names—it can happen—but when you exclusively alliterate, all your characters sound like weird '50s euphemisms for communist sympathizers.
USE FAKE NAME GENERATORS
If you're in a pinch, there are a lot of great generators out there that can help you out. I especially like random-name-generator.info that allows you to create names in bulk, set name rarity, and combine genders. It's always a little more fun for me to come up with names on my own, but generators like these are awesome if you need a lot of names fast.
TRY NOT TO BE TOO ON THE NOSE
Okay, this one's more of a pet peeve than anything, but I really hate characters with names that are perfectly suited to their exact personality in a way that couldn't possibly happen in real life. When you're born, your parents don't know you're going to grow up to be a hardboiled NYPD detective who has to battle the Antichrist, so what are the odds they're going to call you Jericho Cane? Try to give your character a name that parents might actually pick for a newborn child, not just something you've retrofitted to the personality you've given your character.
MAKE SURE IT'S NOT TOO REAL
I always try to Google my fake names just to check things out. If your fake name is also the real name of a public figure, you'll end up provoking some unintended connotations for your audience. The name may also belong to someone recently convicted of a heinous crime (this one happens to me, like, weirdly often) or any other amount of weird little consequences you want to make sure you're aware of. Obviously, if you come up with common, realistic names, they're going to appear commonly in reality. Just make sure you know what connotations they may carry with them.
JUST FOR FUN, LET'S TALK PLACE NAMES
This comes up in our work a decent amount, too. We often need fake business names, fake street addresses, and even fake towns. If it's supposed to appear in real life, then a little bit of realism goes a long way. Here are a few tips:
- Sometimes, we need to come up with fake businesses or organizations, and we often need to stay away from specifics to keep things applicable to a variety of industries. Think about geographical features (North Ridge), place names (Franklin Fields), and family names (McCaskill & Sons).
- When you're making up a street address, one of the most important things is obviously to make sure you don't pick someone's real address. For the same reason that every fictional character in film history has lived in the 555 area code, it's not a good look to use someone's real-life information (even accidentally), so it's safest to make up an entirely new street for your person or place to live. If you have to use a real street, pick a number that doesn't exist.
- Fake towns come up less often, but it's always fun when they do. You get to pretend you're living in pioneer times, settling whatever spit of land you happened on with your wagon train. You can name towns after geographical features, look at other common city names, or really let your creativity run wild. Whatever floats your boat. Just please, I beg you, don't call it Anytown.