Transcription of Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast episode 017 (Dec 2010) – names and characters

The seventeenth episode of the Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast was released on 13th December 2010 and the content has never been released other than website links (on my website so I hope you find this information useful. In the first sixteen episodes (see for earlier blog posts), I covered ‘show not tell’, the five senses, repetition, points of view, tenses, dialogue, characters, crime, poetry, short stories, novels, writing for children, scriptwriting, comedy, romance and chick lit, erotica, ‘writing rules’, historical & the classics. This episode had a focus on names and characters.

What’s in a name? Sometimes it isn’t easy thinking of names for different characters, places, creatures etc but there are plenty of sources of inspiration. Apart from phone books (ideal for surnames), there are baby name books (for first names), news programmes, newspapers, magazines etc., spam emails, just make sure you jumble them up a bit.

Character names: Doing a quick search on the internet, I came across the Thesaurus of British Surnames ( which has a link on it to a Forename Thesaurus (the home page of which is, a source for finding surname and forename variants. It has 348 million variants identified for over 5 million surnames, 22 million variants for over 1 million forenames and gender identification for more than 215,000 forenames. Their search facility lets you type in a name and find the nearest pronunciations. Many more suggestions in the ‘Recommendations – websites’ section below.

Pen names: Many authors have pseudonyms. Charlotte Bronte first wrote ‘Jane Eyre: An Autobiography’ under the pseudonym Currer Bell and many female authors wrote under male names, e.g. George Elliot was Mary Ann Evans and even Joanne Rowling wrote as JK to be taken more seriously for what was seen by her publishers as a boys book. Ian Rankin also writes as ‘Jack Harvey’ and Stephen King as ‘Richard Bachman’. You can write under any name you like but, unless you register a business bank account in that name, you need to ensure that payments received for work sold are made out to your real name.

Place names: Toponymy is the scientific study of place names (more details Doing a web search on Google website (using keywords of ‘place’ and ‘names’) found over 33 million links!

Publications: The main source for names would be baby name books but there are also the likes of:

  • The Oxford ‘Dictionary of First Names’ is a 443-page paperback book which has over 7,000 world-widely used names (listed A-Z) and their origins. There is an extensive introduction which looks at the importance of a first name, how they’ve changed over the centuries, biblical names, Saints’ and royal names, surnames as first names, and 11 pages on naming practices in different cultures! It also has an interesting section entitled ‘The influence of literature, film and popular culture’.
  • Baby name books include ‘2000 girls names’ (a freebie by ‘Parenting’ magazine! – traditional, modern and unusual names plus their meanings), ‘Cool names for babies’ published by Collins (freebie from Prima Baby – hot cool, cool cool, new cool, pre-cool cool and too cool names!). You can also buy gifts (mugs, pens etc) with names and their meanings but that’s an expensive way of researching the ideal name for your characters.
  • Penguin’s ‘Dictionary of Surnames’ is an analysis of over 8,000 English, Welsh, Scottish and  Irish surnames, 100 common UK/Commonwealth/US surnames as well as first names created from surnames/place-names/occupations/nicknames. It also provides meanings and derivatives.
  • ‘How place-names began’ is a (1979!) Beaver book published by Hamlyn. They also produce (produced?) a surnames equivalent.
  • Bloomsbury’s ‘Dictionary of place names’ contains the origins and history of over 4,000 place names.
  • Others sources…telephone directories are great for surnames, as are newspapers as almost every news story has a person’s name in it (best to use first or surname of a celebrity rather than both, to avoid a lawsuit!), even company names (e.g. franking machine company Pitney Bowes could make a John Pitney or Rebecca Bowes), some surnames work as first names (e.g. Frasier) or vice versa (e.g. Mr Allison or Mrs George)…or if you get desperate, the names of people you know, as long as they approve! If you’re creating a creature, you could try a mythological dictionary or failing that, pick a few letters out of a hat, rearrange them and see what you get!

Ideas: here I provide a couple of story ideas or ways to get new ideas then list seven sentence starts listed on my page; each one, if you’d like to use them, for a daily writing project.

1. Flick through a magazine or newspaper, pick a picture of someone you don’t know (for example not a celebrity) and give them a name, age, job, height, preferences, family, friends, aspirations and quirks.

2. some time ago I gave my writing group some example characters and here are two (by name / nationality, age / job, hair colour, height, favourite music, favourite food, regular saying, relationship, siblings, aspirations, quirks:

  • Fayola (Nigerian for ‘lucky), 7, a child prodigy, mass of black curls (she loves), 3’10½“ (mum’s wall chart), Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, fish fingers (“brain food”), “check mate”, eldest child of stable parents, 6 month old brother, to be world chess champion before her 10th birthday, currently county chess champion and can count 1000 down to 1 in under 5 minutes.
  • Stephen (East London, UK), 24 photocopier salesman, jet black spiky (has 25 types of gel), 5’10, 80’s Heavy metal (favourite: AC/DC), curry (hotter the better), “what?”, single (has feelings for co-worker), one (somewhere; a boy, he thinks), to get drunk this weekend (and snog colleague Andy), has Kylie Minogue as his mobile ringtone but keeps it on silent and vibrate modes.

And this episodes sentence starts were:

  1. She’d/he’d never been here before and yet…
  2. Nick’s smile grew with each step…
  3. “Not all of these are for you, you know.”
  4. As Kate pressed the phone to her ear…
  5. Morag welcomed her visitors with open arms…
  6. Samantha kissed the back of…
  7. The machine exploded with deafening force…

Recommendations – websites: some websites on names and characters include It gives links to other sites including ‘2000 names’ (, dictionary of last names (, as well as links to a variety of names by nationality. – this is an interesting one-page guide to naming your characters (with sub-headings of ‘know your characters’, ‘first names’, ‘surnames’, ‘secondary characters’ and ‘remember the genre’). This page also has links to their bookshop, romance bibliography and their writers’ resource page ( which is packed with links under topics such as the arts, fashion, history, medical, publications, societies & associations, Victoriana and writing resources.

Be The Story is a blog by J Timothy King about ‘writing stories and being a better writer’ and and are great pages. As is a blog by writer John Hewitt. The latter contains six tips which are: 1 Character names should be easy to tell apart from one another; 2 Character names should never be distracting or annoying; 3 Try to avoid stereotypes in your character names; 4 Pick names that reflect the time, region and culture that your character is from; 5 Two excellent sources for names are baby name books and phone books; and 6 Be careful when choosing names that rhyme or are alliterative (where the initial letters or sounds are repeated, e.g. Timmy Thompson I noticed a link for on the encyclopedia page which is a site where you can “share your poems, short stories, novels and more with the world”!

Hat Rack is a site run by an American writer (of sci-fi, poetry and plays) Orson Scott Card. This particular page ( is a question and answer on naming characters. OSC’s site also has many other ‘lessons’ on a variety of topics do worth a look! ( as you can probably guess by the name, is a fantasy site (mainly promoting the legendary game ‘Dungeons & Dragons’). This page gives you a free name generator which you don’t need to load on to your computer). I tried it and it’s fun. Firstly you put the first and last initials of your first name e.g. JohN then the first letter of your surname e.g. Smith then select male/female or random, character’s race (choices are dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, half-orc, halfling or human), class (choice of over 20 inc. bard, druid or monk), profession (25+ choices), status (noble, commoner or random), and how famous the character is (1-10). From J/N/S and random for all options I was given Jamlamin Soulaxe a male dwarf druid! is a very sweet site. You can search a multitude of names for inspiration from most popular, celebrity and cool names. There’s also a mini-video of latest celebrity baby news and a ‘name of the day’ (which at the time of writing this was Mieko!). There’s also a great section at the bottom for searching for names by origin with over 25 nationalities to choose from…so, if you’re writing a story where your Japanese character meets a Mexican one you’ll have no problems! also lets you search by origin. is also sci-fi/fantasy related but it has ‘evil name’ and ‘evil sounding name’ generators. I like the sound of those! They also give you generators for fantasy, Greek, heroic, quick (random common names taken from the US Census!), lovecraftian (as in writer HP Lovecraft – is an interesting biography) and weird name generator. There are also generators for names of locations, species and things (including pirate ships!). Again you don’t have to download anything just go into the relevant section, select the relevant options (e.g. boy/girl etc) and click on ‘generate’. The names are then shown. Wen Spencer is a sci-fi/fantasy author who provides advice on how he uses names. advice is similar to other sites but does provide links to name finding websites such as, and (a site set-up by a Chicago-based woman nicknamed ‘word girl’ who shares some of the 10,000 names she had when writing her stories).

I have mentioned the ‘suite101’ site before and is a great page. There’s also a link on Suite 101 to ‘creating a character sheet’ which asks the questions: What is your full name? How old are you? Where were you born? When were you born? Where were you raised? What are your parents’ and siblings’ names? What do you eat? What is your favourite food? What is your favourite drink? How do you spend your Saturday nights? Do you read? What kind of books? Do you watch television? What is your favourite show? Do you listen to music? What kind? Are you married? Divorced? Do you have children? What are their names and ages? What is your job? What do you like about it? What do you hate about it? What do you spend your money on? Do you travel? Where and why (or why not)? What does a typical day in your life consist of? Then you create a physical description of your characters with questions about eye and hair colour, height, weight, scars, physical or mental challenges. You probably wouldn’t want to go into so much detail for a short story but you should know your characters in-depth for a novel to the point where they certainly feel, and almost become, real!

Although is a name site with a Chinese influence it’s definitely worth a visit.

Carolyn Jewel ( is a Californian who writes historical and paranormal romance! In amongst the advice, Carolyn links to ‘the etymology and history of first names’. This also has a name generator and you can browse by nationality. the Chronicles Network is ‘host to the world largest, and friendliest, science fiction & fantasy forums’. The forums (chat rooms) can be viewed by author name, TV series and films as well as general discussion groups. One of the discussions mentions using the names from ‘spam’ (junk) e-mails as character names (either the whole name or part of it) and this is something I’ve heard before when listening to podcasts (radio shows). Gather has been one of the sponsors of the ‘Writer’s Almanac’ podcast hosted by writer Garrison Keillor and, like Facebook, is a site where people “keep up with the people, conversations and moments that matter”. This page suggests that you find character names in “your imagination, phone books, baby name books, family records, company and product names, among your friends, the obituaries and the dictionary”.

As you can see there are a multitude of websites out there which help the writer whether it’s for inspiration or information. The last word on names…some people change their name unofficially but many have legally because they may not like the name they were given or they simply want something more extraordinary or ordinary. In this country this can be done via the UK Deed Poll Service ( and costs just over £30. I’ve read of people changing their name to their favourite football team (see! Despite some restrictions Deed Poll Service has apparently issued deed polls for Jellyfish McSaveloy, Toasted T Cake, Nineteen Sixty-Eight, Hong Kong Phooey, Daddy Fantastic, One-One-Eight Taxi, Ting A Ling, Huggy Bear, Donald Duck, Jojo Magicspacemonkey and James Bond…there are some weird people out there…and the strange make the best stories!

The podcast concluded with News & Feedback, On This Day in History and a 60-word story entitled ‘Home help’:

Fred hated living alone. Having no family and being new to the area, he relied on the television or radio for company. With nothing interesting on either, he flicked through the local telephone directory and spotted the number he wanted. He dialled and listened to the soothing female voice, “at the third stroke, the time according to ‘Timeline’ will be…”

That’s it. Thanks for visiting – a list of the other transcripts and summaries can be found at


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