Finding a first name for your character is easy-peasy squeezy lemon. There are a literal billion baby name websites out there.
Last names, though? That’s…a little more complicated. There’s something about having to choose a last name that makes me freeze up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given a character the name “Johnson” just because I couldn’t think of anything better.
But naming every character “Johnson” is no way to write, so here are some ideas for getting around this common writerly stumbling block.
Five places to find last names are:
Graveyards. If you ain’t afraid of no ghost, your local graveyard can be an excellent resource. Plus, it’s kinda fun to just walk around and look at all the different tombstones and grave goods. (What? No, I’m totally over Halloween. Why do you ask?)
Phone books. Okay, so they’re not really a thing anymore. Your grandma probably still has one, though. And what better reason to visit your grandma (besides the fact that she’ll probably give you cookies)?
The National Archives. Every state has its own collection of records, and guys, there are so many names.
Yearbooks. Did anybody actually keep their yearbook? I sure didn’t. I hung onto it for a few months after the end of high school and then chucked it in the recycling. But if you still have one lying around, you’ll probably find a few interesting last names.
Fantasy name generators. If you’re looking for a distinctly not-real-sounding last name, give “fantasy name generator” a quick google. My personal favorite is Fantasy Name Generators—it has a million billion subsections and the names that it gives you don’t sound “made-up.”
A word to the wise…
If you’re writing a character from a culture that’s not your own, it’s worth doing a spot of research on how surnames work in that culture. For example…
- Iceland still uses a patronymic system. All last names end in -son or -dóttir.
- Korea famously has a very small number of common last names.
- Muslim last names follow a complicated set of rules designed to reference genealogy.
- Chinese last names combine with first ones to create a unique meaning.
[insert geeky jabbering about cultural diversity here]
What’s your go-to resource for last names for characters? Do you find them difficult to come up with? Do you just not give your characters last names? Have you had to come up with a new last name for yourself to serve as your pseudonym? How did you do it?