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May 27 / Michael

Steal this name!

I’m often asked, “Michael, how do you come up with such awesome names for your characters?” I’m always the one asking myself that, but the point is: Coming up with the right names is an important part of writing fiction, whether you’re looking to create a relatable every-boy with serious upside, like Harry Potter, or a precocious, slightly prickly classmate for him, like Hermione Granger.

The main thing about names is that they should be believable and not too distracting, either way. They shouldn’t be too normal or too weird, overall—but they shouldn’t be too not-weird, either. When it comes to naming, parents can be careless or cruel, hipsters (Streeter!) or hippies (Rainbow!), illiterate or alliterative. Odds are good that they’ll be at least one of those, and, of course, there’s no known defense against being born with an unfortunate last name.

That said, it’s probably not a bad idea to make some allowances for your main character. You’ll want to avoid naming your protagonist Larry Lipshitz, for example, but if you want a cool name, try not to try too hard. Jack Bauer is kind of a tough, action-y name, but it’s also one of the most believable things about 24 these days. But Rock Stryker? Blaize Bloodworth? Probably a bridge too far…

So how do you get a lifelike blend of normal and strange, mundane and exotic? Try stealing. I once rounded out a character list by mixing and matching the first and last names of the British Olympic equestrian team. It gave me just the right New England feel—along with just the right number of exceptions. Just need one name? Turn on the TV. Sure it’s random; so is life. Now I’ve got a state trooper with the same last name as a NASCAR driver. A few days ago I wrote: “He made the sort of reckless but effective K-turn you generally only see from cops and racecar drivers . . .” Perfect!

Am I advocating ripping off reality to satisfy your own craven fictional needs? Yes, and you can quote me on that. Just don’t use my real name.

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