Because I create lots of scenarios and stories for learning, I create lots of characters. Some of these characters are only mentioned for a sentence or two, while others drive the progress in extended narratives. All of those characters have one thing in common: they need names.
I usually avoid using generic characters in my stories. Part of the value of scenarios for learning is that they make abstract concepts concrete.
This is OK: “A manager is having trouble with an employee who’s late all the time.”
But this is better: “Tom is a new manager. He’s having trouble with one of his employees, Abbi, who has been late to work 3 times in the last 2 weeks.”
See how much more concrete the situation is in the second example? This isn’t just any manager and employee; this is Tom and Abbi. I added a few more specifics too (Tom isn’t just any manager, he’s a new manager; we know how often Abbi has been late).
The book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath explains why some ideas “stick” and are memorable while others are quickly forgotten. One of the characteristics of “sticky” ideas is that they’re concrete. Giving characters names is the kind of detail that makes those characters and their situation more realistic and memorable.
But how do you come up with character names, especially if you have a large cast of characters?
I use a variety of name generators for my scenarios. Different tools may be better for different situations.
- Fake Name Generator: This is my go-to site for generating names. It creates an entire profile for you at the click of a button–not just first and last names, but birthday, age, address, job, height and weight, car, and more. You can choose the gender, age range, name set, and country. Choosing the “name set” gives you names from different nationalities, making it easy to create diverse character names. (Bonus tip: If some website requires you to enter a bunch of information and you don’t feel like creating a fake profile yourself, just copy and paste one from here.)
- The Name Generator: If you need something quick and easy, this has a simple interface. Click Generate Name repeatedly until you find a name you like. The power of this site comes when you expand the options. You can set the minimum and maximum characters for the name, as well as what letter each name should start or begin with. If you want an alliterative name, you can have Mary McCune or Dylan Daugherty.
- Social Security Administration Names: This site is most helpful if you need popular names from a specific time period. For example, if your character is a new baby, Madison might be a good choice. For a 60-year-old woman, perhaps Donna or Janet would be better. Choose Popular Names by Birth Year and enter a year to see popular names for babies born that year. (h/t to Desiree Pinder, who I learned this tip from.)
- Behind the Name: This site lets you choose the background or nationality for your names. Some of the choices are perhaps less useful for corporate training scenarios and more useful for role-playing games (fairy or Xalaxxi names, anyone?). You can get some great diverse names here from other nationalities though.
- Just for fun specialty name generators: There are random name generators for all sorts of topics. Most of these are more for entertainment (or perhaps novel writing), but a quick search online turns up some fun options. You can use the Dickens Name Generator to create that perfect name for your Victorian novel. Perhaps Harry Potter is more your style? Try this one or that one. Maybe you need a pirate name or a futuristic name.
How do you create names for the characters in your scenarios? Do you have a favorite name generator site? Share your suggestions in the comments.
This is part 4 in a series about how to become an instructional designer. Links to the rest of the series can be found at the end of this post.
If you’re hoping to move from a career in teaching or training (or something else) to instructional design, chances are you need to learn some of the common technology. Most of the instructional design jobs are at least partially, if not completely, for online education. Fortunately, a number of the programs allow free trials.
The list of technology skills below was originally something I put together for a teacher who is considering moving into instructional design in a few years. She specifically wanted some ideas to work on during her summers off to improve her skills. You don’t have to have skills in all these areas, of course, but hopefully this will help identify possible areas of improvement.
- Basic html knowledge is generally expected; you can use the free tutorials at W3 Schools to get started.
- Captivate is a great program, especially for software application training (which is about half of all the e-learning out there).
- Lectora is used in some situations and would provide experience with that kind of course development software.
- Experience with any Learning Management System such as Blackboard (not free) or Moodle (free) is helpful, although not required. You really can learn this on the job.
- For my current job, I use Dreamweaver and Photoshop almost every day, but those are expensive and not easy to learn quickly. If you’re hoping to move into instructional design, you’ll probably need to be familiar with them eventually. It isn’t where I would recommend starting unless you already have the access or experience.
- At the time this post was originally written (2007), many jobs required Flash programming. Now, Flash is on the way out.
- I’ve seen growing interest in social media tools like blogs, wikis, etc., so any experience in these areas is helpful.
- Games and simulations are also popular, so those are other areas to explore.
- Some experience with audio and video editing could be beneficial as well.
Note: The above list assumes that you are already familiar with Microsoft Office programs, including PowerPoint. If not, start with that training. Instructional design for face-to-face learning often means developing PowerPoint presentations and Word handouts.
If you see something I have left out in this list, please add a comment to let me know!
More than any specific set of applications, though, is the desire and motivation to learn new technology, especially to learn it independently. A lot of my technology skills have been gained since I started in the field, and I continue to learn on my own. I see that as a great benefit of working in instructional design. If you hate learning new technology or really struggle to learn it on your own, instructional design may not be a career that really makes you happy. Later in this series I’ll talk more about figuring out if instructional design is a good career choice or not.
Other Posts in this Series
- What Does an Instructional Designer Do?
- Getting Into Instructional Design
- Instructional Design Skills
- Technology Skills (current post)
- Professional Organizations and Career Options
- Is instructional design the right career?
Update: this post sparked some discussion, plus I had some more thoughts after writing the above list. Check out my two related posts about technology skills below:
Read all my posts about Instructional Design Careers here.
Update 10/5/13: I have closed comments on this post due to excessive spam. Feel free to continue the discussion on one of the other technology skills posts above.
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