Choosing Characters' Last Names

I was wondering how other writers choose their characters’ last names. With so many options to pick first names, what factors in choosing the surname? My focus is primarily on contemporary literary fiction since historical, fantasy, or other such genres tend to lend to specifics. What sort of naming rules do you apply (such as differing syllable count, no alliteration, etc)? It would be interesting to note the process you have in selecting fictional surnames.

My process is a bit boring! I make sure I know my characters ethnic background, and then I do a pretty basic google search (example: Russian surnames.) Then I see how it sounds with the first names of my characters, and if it sounds good, then yay! I have a surname! I try not to pull from literature, but I did name one of my heroes after [name_m]John[/name_m] [name_m]Thornton[/name_m]. It’s more about background and ethnicity.*

Ultimately I always pick based on aesthetics - first and foremost, I just want the name to present the character as closest to how I see them. If I need direction, though - and frequently I do! - I’ll start thinking mainly about social class and cultural/racial extraction.

If I have a big cast (like the game project I’m on right now) I’ll often set up certain patterns or groupings that people can look for if they are interested - for example, this game includes references to a certain group of famous philosophical/ethical thinkers. In a previous project, I formed all the names from anagrams describing the characters. [name_m]Just[/name_m] for a fun kind of easter egg for readers who bother - as well as a way of moving forward when I’m uninspired :stuck_out_tongue:

It’s worth remembering how some names can suggest really interesting stuff about a family. Like, say, an Anglicised form of a Jewish or Chinese name definitely suggests a certain family history - and by contrast, Anglicised forms of Gaelic names are so much more common that using the Gaelic form is likely a deliberate statement. It’s definitely worth thinking about surnames in that context, because you can them use them to imply (rather than explicate) facts about the character; you can explain a character’s background all day, but showing or implying it instead will create a much more meaningful impression.

[name_m]How[/name_m] does one show class when it comes to last names? I know of the [name_m]Boston[/name_m] Brahmin families and obviously the peerage system of the United Kingdom. It just seems harder in the United States without picking an obvious name like Astor or Rockefeller. What research do you go about showing an upper or lower class name?

I’ve never actually had to pick one in the context of the US, because I don’t write [name_u]America[/name_u] in general. But even with no official class system, [name_u]America[/name_u] has pretty strong divisions in class by comparison to (for example) here in Australia. It’s not as if every name would only belong in one class, because they come from so many sources, and most come with racial connections too - but you could get general pointers depending on your time period from what was going on with immigration, industrialisation and economic factors, when the surname first started showing up in the country, and where it came from.

[name_m]Fox[/name_m], could you give me an example of how you would do that in Australia for an upper, middle, and lower class along the same racial/ethnic lines?