A retro image of a woman saying her name is "So Random!"

For the next book I was toying with the idea of being more “casual” and “free-flowing” in how I come up with new characters’ names.

So I’m thinking: what about one of those automated “random name generators” you find everywhere on the web nowadays?

At this point I feel a tap on the shoulder. It’s one of my next novel’s minor characters. He’s called Louie (just plain Louie, no surname yet, makes his first fleeting appearance in draft Chapter Three). And Louie is becoming a right little nuisance lately at my kitchen table in the office.

“When you say ‘random’, d’you mean random as in the precise statistical mathemalogical meaning of the word, as in a random sample of 100 households, like?” Louie asks in his Cork accent (for which the words “singsong” and “dulcet” were invented). “Or probability theory, you know?”

I think: Listen Louie, any more of this and I’ll make you a Barbara.

“Or pseudo random,”  the bolshie little fecker continues, “or simply odd and unexpected? Or do you mean the way the younger generation uses the word ‘random’ to mean ‘Oh golly gosh’?”

Right. That’s it. He’s becoming waaaaay too disruptive and argumentative. I kill Louie. And instantly regret it, because Louie has (or did have) a point. And he makes (or made) a damn fine pot of Barry’s – in draft Chapter Six, I mean. It’s a cracking scene.

Yes, like an artist’s pencil, Louie does (or did) have a point. What kind of random? How much?

It seems some of these automated name generators aren’t very random at all, probability-wise, mathemalogically speaking. For a start, the sample of names that they use tends to be way too small, so they quickly become predictable and repetitive. Not great if you’ve a large cast.

Example of a Mafia name generator asking you for your name

Sometimes they ask you for your own name as a “seed” – possibly by totting up the ASCII code numbers of each letter in it. That means if you or someone else tries it again with your name it will generate the same seed and get an identical result each time. So to generate different seeds for lots of names you’d need to input different names instead of your own. Piles of them. Made up names if necessary. Which kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

On top of all that, the pool of names that most of these generators draw upon is far too unconvincing if your fiction takes place within the broad realm of “social realism”.

I’m thinking here of the various “What’s your porn star name?” generators out there, or the “Very British Name Generator”. All very fine if you want a Very British Porn Star character with a very daft name. When I pressed the buttons on those two generators it was a toss-up between Tonya Spankadocious and Amelia Salisbury, I kid you not.

Other generators are far more subtle and crafty. This little one appears to have a massive pool of first and last names.

It also has a clever twist (adopts the “Here comes the science bit” voice from shampoo and washing powder commercials): it assembles each surname from smaller name-fragments picked at random:

Male and female first names shown here are real, though uncommon, and are randomly selected from a long list. The last names are created from 2, 3, or 4 name fragments. In all, the Generator creates every name in real time from over a billion possibilities for each gender. Since these names are fabricated, you may see very odd results once in a while — please forgive and try again.

So I press the “Refresh” button…

The algorithm swings into action…

Digital bits and bobs fly back and forth across the Interweb…

Over a billion possibilities…

The name generator appears on the screen again… and gives me… it gives me…

Delbert Giwnly!!! And Matilda Gragspoon!!!!!!

Perfect. OK, almost perfect. Fine if I need a pair of doomed star-crossed lovers for a YA historical swords and bodices fantasy murder opus set in the Yorkshire Dales – how random!

Right, Master Giwnly and Miss Gragspoon, get a move on there. I need you two to get shut of a dead body in the kitchen. It’s a stiff goes by the name of Barbara. Formerly known as Louie. How do you pronounce ‘Giwnly’? Then if one of you could put the kettle on and find the Barry’s and…

Seriously, though, you’d be better off with the phonebook. Irish telephone directories have all kinds of strange names lately, and most of them are absolutely real.

Real randomness

Meanwhile if you do want to find out more about true (as opposed to pseudo) randomness, I suggest you check out Random.org.

It’s a splendid project by a computer science professor at Trinity College Dublin called Mads Haahr. And hasn’t he a fabulous name? See: you couldn’t make it up.

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