Neil Gaiman got an interesting question at the reading last week: how does he come up with such wonderful names? Coraline was a typo (he misspelled Caroline on a letter, and thought the result was lovely). Richard Mayhew was a combo of Richard Curtis (director of Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral, among others), and a friend whose last name was Mayhew. The character suited his namesakes in his sort of bumbling, unexpected charm. Nobody Owens comes from the verse that appears in the book, a line including “nobody owns”.
These names seem easy, particularly to an author as clever as Gaiman. But he did reveal that some names don’t come easily, and he searches and searches and searches until inanimate objects like chairs seem to offer suitable monikers.
For me, this is how it is every single time I need to name something. I once had a ferret named Ferret-head. (Best ferret I ever had, by the way.) I keep the US Census Bureau’s list of names (sorted by male, female, and surnames) bookmarked for when I’m writing, as well as this giant webpage full of names and their meanings from cultures around the world. I can spend hours trying to find THE PERFECT NAME, and come up with Charlie Townend. Blah.
Often, I don’t bother – my short stories often have completely unnamed characters. One recently was named after the place where I get my hair cut.
I want to have characters with snappy, memorable names. Names people remember, like Arthur Dent, like Gus McCrae, like Fat Charlie. I suppose, on paper, those names look fairly ordinary too – it’s the unbelievably rich characters behind the names that make them memorable.
Okay, then, I suppose I’ll just have to strive to be a better writer. Hmm. Tricky.