White Pages and Character Names

It is a law of nature that the more you want something, the more difficult it is to come by. I have been after a recent copy of my local White Pages for some time now. The White Pages, along with the larger Yellow Pages, used to be delivered to our door step once or twice a year. It occurred to me recently that I haven’t seen one in years now.

I reached out to my local phone service provided and asked if it was possible to get a recent copy of my local White Pages. After a long pause (I had a feeling the person with whom I was chatting didn’t know what the White Pages were, and had to ask a colleague), I was told that I could contact the “high level” support line to request a copy of the White Pages. I was given a phone number, which was a good thing since I don’t have a telephone directory with which to look up the number myself.

It might seem strange that in 2017, I’d want a copy of the White Pages, but I have a good reason. I’ve wanted to add one to my collection of reference books for some time now. It has to do with writing stories, and coming up with character names.

Writers have all sorts of ways they choose the names for their characters. Some writers pick names that have some deeper meaning to the story. Some writers choose names that reflect elements of their characters—nominal determinism: A gambler named Nancy Chance. A florist named Rose Elmer. For these writers, what goes into a name is important. For these type of writers, books of baby names can be useful. When I first started writing, I had one of these books (and frequently had to explain to concerned guests that the book was for naming characters, not babies).

I don’t work this way. In my stories, names are more arbitrary. Parents choose names for different reasons, but in my experience, names are rarely chosen to reflect some element in their offspring’s character, or to portent some future event. This is why books of baby names never worked for me. What I always thought would be the best source of names for me, therefore, was my local White Pages. There are several reasons for this:

  1. There are more than enough names in the white pages. And I get a good selection of surnames.
  2. The names in my local white pages reflect the diversity of the population in my area. I get a good mix of surnames.

I’ve often thought that if I am writing a story that takes place in Los Angeles, a copy of the white pages for, say, the San Fernando Valley would be a useful tool for choosing a character’s name. If the character was from Des Moines, Iowa, then a copy of the Des Moines white pages would work.

The white pages are available online, of course. I can look up a name and get the phone and address information, if it is available. The problem is that I don’t want to use the white pages to look up a name. I want to open the book to any random page, and skim the list of names on that page to find one that works for me.

My Internet for a printed copy of the white pages!

4 thoughts on “White Pages and Character Names

  1. I think you make a good point. Authors often chose names with some subtle connection to the present story. But when real parents choose names, they have no idea what that kid will end up doing in the future. I will name my daughter “Grace” because I want her to grow up religious like me, but she turns out to be a tattoo-covered atheist. Oops. So in the real world, names are actually more what parents hope comes to pass, rather than what actually does. Now that I think of it, that might actually be something fun to play around with in my writing.

  2. You might try your local grocery stores. Our phone company stopped delivering them and instead leaves a stack near the apartment/job magazines

  3. Steven, at one point I wrote a script using that very data for generating names by decade and region, but it wasn’t for my writing, it was for another project I was working on. Same idea.

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