Many fiction writers choose Russian settings and characters for their stories. They might think that picking a good, authentic Russian name for a book is easy – while in fact, it’s not.

Books of even famous writers are packed with supposedly “Russian” names that may sound believable to a non-speaker but in fact don’t even exist. For example, the name Ivan, so seemingly Russian that it’s virtually foolproof, has in reality been on the top ten list of the most unpopular boy’s names in Russia for the last hundred years. Here’re a few tips on choosing a Russian character’s name which would hopefully prevent novel writers from committing similar mistakes:

How to Choose a Modern Russian Name for Contemporary Fiction

The best sources of today’s Russian names are news sites and especially sports pages.

For today’s settings, news sites offer thousands of perfectly authentic Russian names. Belonging to real people, young or old, they give a writer a good idea of their popularity and period value. Sports pages with their lists of team players are a true treasure trove of authentic Russian names. The best way to use them is by mixing first names and surnames of different people until the combination clicks with the character.

The least reliable sources of “Russian” names are Russian baby name sites or Russian name generators.

Using Russian baby name sites can get a writer into deep trouble. Targeting young parents looking for an unusual or ethnic name, baby name sites are no good for writers’ purposes. These sites list names in alphabetic order, regardless of their cultural or period value, so a trendy 1920s baby name may end up next to one that went out of circulation in the 17th century.

Besides, Russian baby name sites are often created by people who have a very vague idea of the Russian name system. They often confuse feminine and masculine name forms as well as full and pet names. Sometimes they throw in a generous helping of German, Polish, Romanian and even completely alien, extraterrestrial names that no Russian or any other Earthling has ever heard of. Those names may look Russian to a foreigner, but Russian they are not.

How to Choose a Period Russian Name for Historical Fiction

The best sources of Russian period names are memoirs, letters and diaries from the target era. While naming a character after the memoirs’ famous author is hardly a good idea, the names of his long-forgotten friends, relatives and even servants are up for grabs. A writer mustn’t forget that Russian period names varied tremendously by class: to stay on the safe side, the writer should resist the temptation of naming her fictional village boy after a real-life nobleman.

The worst source of Russian period names are famous historical personalities. Quite a few writers happily call their Russian characters Chekhov or Rachmaninoff without realizing that these names have become part of their famous bearers. A writer would be much better off avoiding famous Russian names altogether.

Next time: more tips on choosing a Russian name for a fictional character.