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A Name By Any Other...

In my last post concerning the saga of Joanna's Scrivener adventure, you may recall she encountered a blip—naming her characters. Currently, she's using name holders until she finds the perfect appellation for each one.

In my last post concerning the saga of Joanna's Scrivener adventure, you may recall she encountered a blip—naming her characters. Currently, she's using name holders until she finds the perfect appellation for each one. 

You also might have gathered that Joanna has the tendency to overanalyze and complicate her projects. So as she's zipping along to reach the 50,000 word goal for NaNoWriMo there are moments where she's itching to edit her text. I keep telling her to just spit out the words and worry about revising the story once she's finished. But how can you argue with someone who has an entire bookcase that's crammed with various editions of Roget's and other thesauri plus the coveted and hard to find Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged, 1934 copyright?

Last week when I stopped by her office at the University for our usual lunch date, I found her staring at her laptop's screen. Barely moving her lips she said, "I'm stuck."

"To your chair or in the novel?"

She swiveled around to stare at me with blazing and blood-shot eyes. "I've reached the middle and I can't move forward until I find the right names. Nothing works. You promised that you'd show me how to use the name generator."

I sensed that lunch would be in the distant future so I dragged my chair next to hers and began her next tutorial. 

[Note: This post centers on Scrivener 3.1.1's Name Generator feature]

Naming characters is no easy feat as Joanna discovered. Many writers spend hours researching names that might be heavy with symbolism, that might have been popular during a certain historical period, region, or ethnic group. We search for names in a number of ways via obituaries, old newspaper stories, baby name books, a mash-up of names from our favorite stories, or the names of relatives long gone. If we have all these sources why do we need a name generator? Because sometimes we need help finding a good balance between first and last names

You Name It!

To access the name generator go to Edit->Writing Tools->Name Generator. When the window opens what you'll see is an empty text box where a list of name will be generated. On the right side, you'll find a number of options on how to adjust generated names. 



Let's take a look at each one: 

  • Gender: Here you can select male or female or either, which is the default.
  • Attempt Alliteration: the generator produce names with an alliterative effect like Andy Anderson.
  • Double-barrelled surnames: generates names like Lesley Trevor-Jones.
  • Forenames use initials only: An initial replaces the forename. If more than one forename is selected in the following option, multiple initials will be generated like E. M. Forster.
  • Number of forenames/initials: Produces multiple forenames. You have the option to select from one, which is the default, up to three initials.
  • Set or search forename and surname: In these two fields you can either set part of the name yourself, or search through the database by providing a part of it. For each part of the name:
    • Set: forces the name to be what you type into the text field. 
    • Starts with: will return names from the database that start with certain letters you type into the field.
    • Ends with: similar as above but with letters at the end of the name.
    • Contains: letters that appear anywhere within the name.
  • Obscurity level: the slider adjust how obscure the name should be on average. Move the slider  to the far left and you can get Jack Smith or all the way to the right to generate a name like Alvah Bessie. 

Finally, at the bottom you'll see a number of lists ranging from Catalan forenames (male and female) and surnames to popular US names in both genders. The key to generating names is to tick a surname and a forename in any of the lists provided. If you don't select both a forename and a surname, a list can't be generated. Note that at the footer of the names list is a + button and a − buttons that allow you to add a new list or delete only the ones you add . 

Once you've ticked a combination of forenames and surnames then you're ready to generate names. Note that in the Generate Names pane there's a slider that allows you to generate one name up to 500 names. 

After generating several hundreds of names, Joanna wasn't satisfied with the results. "Nothing is grabbing me. I want to add Hungarian names for both male and female how do I go about that? And can I add popular names during the time of Austro-Hungarian Empire?"

Managing Custom Name Lists

The simplest way to create a list of names is to use a spreadsheet. In a single row add the names and then save it as a .csv file. If you would rather use a text editor add the names in a single line with each name separated by a comma and save it as a .csv file. 

To add it to the Name Generator tool, click on the + button. Find where you saved the file in the chooser dialogue and click "Open". A window will open where you can provide a name for the list and type. In Joanna's case it will simply be Hungarian Names (Female) for the title and "Female Forenames" for the type.  At the bottom, you have the option to tick the box to enable the Obscurity Level slider for that particular list.


After creating a very basic list of forenames for both male and surnames, Joanna's list generated several combinations for both male and female.

Finding Names

As mentioned above, there are endless number of resources you can use to create custom lists. These range from baby name books to old phone books, obituaries, census reports, municipal archives that have birth, marriage, and death certificates on microfilm, old newspapers and magazines as well as certain databases that charge a fee to use for a limited time. If your time and funds are limited, Google is the fastest way to find names.


Tip: Once you've found the perfect name for your characters instead of going scene by scene to find the name placeholders, simply use Project Replace. First, to be on the safe side, back up your work. Second, go to Edit->Find>Project Replace. A pane will open and from there plug in the name you're currently using and replace it with the generated name. Make sure "Whole words" is enabled in the field directly below the tiny swap button. 


As soon as Joanna learned how to customize names, she told me she had one of her TAs compile several lists. "So now I have names of people who came through Ellis Island, popular Hungarian names, Austrian names, Jewish names from the 1930s in NYC, Yiddish names, Jewish gangster names, and tons more."*

"What's with the preoccupation with Jewish names?"

"Oh, I never mentioned what the story was about. It's about a Hungarian writer, the Budapest Ghetto, and what turns out to be nothing but a switcheroo in identity."

"And I'm guessing it has a lot to do with your area of expertise."

"Oh, yes. As much as I hate to see it, the headlines out of Hungary and here are fodder for this book. In spite of getting stuck on the names, this NaNoWriMo experience has been a cakewalk. Once I finish, the next thing to learn is how revision mode works and how to compile it. You'll show me, right?"

De természetesen.**

* Joanna's grad student took the easy way out and used Fantasy Names Generators

**"But of course" in Hungarian according to Google Translator.



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