Occasionally a visitor will spot a book of baby names on my desk and leap to conclusions. No, I've not become leaky-loined and begat a foetal version of myself. These books are some of my most important reference works.

Writers create imaginary lands peopled with imaginary... erm, people. Although some of those characters might have an aspect of their personality which was inspired by a real person or astute observation, they are generally unique. And unique things need names. And if I was left to myself I would probably end up with characters who are all called John, or Malcolm, or Englebertwhistle. In fact, this happened once - I scanned a list of all the names I had used in my short stories and novels and found that I had repeated some names far too often. Why was I obsessed with the name 'Wendy'? I don't think I've even had a friend or girlfriend with that name. Our minds can't be trusted to do what they want, we have to guide them.

These books of first names and surnames are fantastic. A character's name should fit them so closely that you can't imagine them being called anything else (and not just because their name is eponymous, as with the hard-man survivor Chris Turner). When you are stuck for ideas you can browse the books, opening them at random and skimming the names and descriptions. The latter help in identifying a name that has relevance to the character, though obviously you can't overdo it: calling your overweight protagonist Ham Tucker, and his flatulent partner Wendy Windblows, would only work in a comedy. (Actually I love those names, now I'll have to use them...) If you write then make sure you have some of these books. Also, make use of websites. For surnames: websites such as this, where you can identify the most common surnames in a county; or this one which breaks surnames down by region and country. First name sites tend to be focussed on choosing a baby name, but are still useful, e.g. see babynames.com or Behind The Name.

Choosing names is one thing. Keeping track of them is another. There are many ways to do this, but I do recommend that you follow some sort of system. I currently have a large table in a Word document called my 'database of names'. Any character I create for a short story or novel goes in here. It has columns for:
  • First name(s)
  • Surname
  • Story they appeared in
  • Notes (appearance etc)
  • A tick box for if the character is 'only named' (i.e. minor, referenced but possibly not appearing in the story)
  • A tick box for if the character is dead
  • A tick box for if the character is non-human
The great thing is that I can go to the Table menu and choose A-Z Sort on any column. Then I can compare all first names, or all surnames, sorted alphabetically and immediately showing all those pesky Wendys; or sort things by story, so all the characters from that piece appear next to each other. I can even sort by the tick box columns, e.g. to make sure that all the dogs aren't called Bowser. This is why it is important to keep track of all characters, not just the main ones, so that every secondary character is not called John.

My 'database of names'. Warning: may contain spoilers.

The other use for this table is that when I am trying to think of a character to fulfil a role in a story I can skim the table and see if there are any from other stories who could be re-used and interconnect between the fictions. I should probably add a 'location' column to make this easier, so I could quickly identify all the characters based in Manchester, for example.

At some point I might need something more powerful than a simple Word table, but Microsoft Access has scared me off every time I have made abortive attempts to create a database in it (e.g. for recipes, or role-playing games). If you are a writer, what system do you use, if any? Feel free to email me or answer in the comments.