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One Simple Trick for Coming Up With Names for Stuff

_TAZ8156For some writers, stringing words together to tell a story is the easy part. The words just flow in a pattern that creates itself, leaving us as little more than stenographers taking notation in the form of a first draft as the words move through our heads.

For some of those same writers the hard part about writing is thinking up names to use in the draft or to hang on it. I am one of those writers; my blog was first called"Nate’s eBook News" and then "The Digital Reader" because I honestly couldn’t come up with a better name for it when I launched the blog in 2010.

I used to think that I just didn’t have that type of creativity in me, but lately I have realized that this is less an innate ability than a skill which one can learn and develop. I stumbled across that insight by accident, and I would like to share it with you.

One simple trick for coming up with names

The tl;dr version is that I found a way to apply the "porn star name" parlor game as a general trick for coming up with names for just about anything.

6067553573_95309e76c1_bFor those who haven’t heard of it before, this is a game where you invent the name you would use as a porn star by combining the name of your first pet and the street of your childhood home.

First introduced to the public in the movie Boogie Nights, the game is frivolous, silly, and fun, but when we look past the silliness it’s clear that the game follows an obvious pattern which can be applied to naming just about anything.

I identified the pattern one Saturday night when I was cracking jokes on Twitter. I was coming up with alternative versions of the porn star name game as it applied to other topics.

For example:

Those are a couple pretty funny ideas, yes, but if we look past the humor we can see a pattern in both the original game and and my alternate suggestions.

8503150092_33dda6fcf5_hAll three games boil down to a simple process: take elements from your life and string the words together to come up with names.

You can use anything, including:

  • address (past and current, including both the number, street name, and location)
  • pets (deceased, living)
  • friends
  • enemies
  • schools
  • food
  • colors
  • relatives
  • teachers
  • personal attributes
  • current mood

You should probably take care when using a distinctive or unique name, especially if you want to stay on good terms with the source of that name, but if that source is an enemy – have fun.

Once you understand the basic premise, you can also expand the list of possible options to include:

  • emotions
  • random adjective and adverbs (including from foreign languages)
  • winning Scrabble words
  • historical events
  • output from lorem ipsum generators

This trick can be used to name just about anything, including people, places, and companies in a story; the title of your great American novel; a publishing company; or even your next pet. (The law firm name trick mentioned above really does work for law firms, accounting firms, and auditors.)

5418402840_22d101e887_bJust be sure that when you use it you also carefully consider the context, connotation, subtext, and cultural references in the names you invent. Sometimes this will prevent you from using a name, but other times it will add extra layers of meaning which you can use to add to a story.

A place name might be used as a reference to a future event, making it a clue for the observant reader. It could also be a reference to an old story in a previous book in the series, or an inside joke.

And when making a name for a character, you need to consider how the name would be structured in that person’s culture. Does the family name come first? Is there a masculine or feminine patronymic? Is this an aristocrat?

For example, the name Aral Vorkosigan combines the name of the sea with the Russian word for thief and a corruption of the last name of a former Premier of the Soviet Union. The character is an aristocrat (denoted by the "Vor" syllable) in a Russian-influenced human culture, and the details built into his name add depth to the story in ways that only the most astute reader would notice. (I’ve been waiting to use that factoid for close to a decade.)

The possible complications are endlessly fascinating, but also infinitely fruitful. The only real limitation is how many times you want to generate new names, and how much work you want to put into refining a name.

So, how would you use this trick?

images by photosteve101andrechinn,  kimuberttarotastic

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Mackay Bell May 8, 2016 um 4:56 pm

Interesting. Related, did you see the piece in the Washington Post about how they name race horses?

Nate Hoffelder May 8, 2016 um 4:56 pm

I hadn’t seen it, no. Thanks!

Fjtorres May 8, 2016 um 5:45 pm

A long time ago a friend pointed me towards Kate Monk’s Onomastikon web site:

Another trick of hers is baby naming sites.

Atlases and maps are also a good source of names.

There are even free random name generator apps on Android and presumably other platforms.

The issue really isn’t so much coming up with a name as is choosing which name best fits the character and their milleu. Or the city. Or the planet.

Nate Hoffelder May 8, 2016 um 5:47 pm

Good sources! Thanks!

Mackay Bell May 8, 2016 um 7:39 pm

Scrivener also has a built in name generator, which is really helpful, particularly for names for minor characters that you don’t want to spend much time thinking about.

Nate Hoffelder May 8, 2016 um 7:41 pm

Somewhere on my shelf I have a book of place names for the state of VA. I need to find it. As I recall, some of the names were really weird.

C.B. Pratt May 8, 2016 um 11:30 pm

Any atlas is useful for coming up with names…but the ones centered on the UK are the best! AZ London has pages and pages of street names to combine in new and intriguing ways.

Popup May 9, 2016 um 3:06 am

For naming shit – try the Bristol stool scale.

(On a more serious note – let me second using maps, or gazetteers.)

Nate Hoffelder May 9, 2016 um 8:25 am

Warning to readers: that chart does not cover step stools. It analyzes feces.

K. S. Brooks May 9, 2016 um 9:58 am

Love this, Nate – and I will probably use it when naming companies in my books. When I name characters, though, if it’s an antagonist, I usually use a derivative of someone who’s crossed me and switch first and last names, i.e. Mitch Russo would be Russ Mitchell. For good guys, I just take the first and last names of two people I like and match them up, like Kim Krull & Buddy Birch can become an Asian character named Buddy Kim. That method always makes me feel fortunate that I know more people I like than not. 😉 Thanks for the fun article.

Nate Hoffelder September 15, 2017 um 5:21 pm


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