How important are character names? Does it really matter what we choose? Or how we go about deciding?
Should we draw names out of hat? Or should we wait until exact names are revealed to us in a dream?
@SuzKorb asked me this question on Twitter: “Do you have any advice for naming novel characters?”
I’m slightly hesitant to give advice on how to pick character names. I can’t tell you how to name your characters anymore than I can tell you how to name your real-life children. I truly think the naming process is going to be unique for each of us.
But . . . I do think there are some general principles we can employ when deciding on character names. Here are eight things I keep in mind when naming my characters:
1. Develop our character before picking the name.
I fill out my character worksheet and get to know as much about my character as possible before deciding on a name. As I develop the character’s personality, ethnicity, quirks, life-experiences, etc., I’m able to narrow down names that might match that person. For example, in The Doctor’s Lady, my heroine is a well-educated, pious lady from a wealthy family. I chose the name Priscilla because it has a more refined and elegant ring than a name like Mary or Betty.
2. Find names that match our setting and fit with the plot.
Once my character is starting to come to life, I also evaluate how that character fits within the plot and setting. In my current WIP, which is set in the lumber communities of central Michigan, I sorted through rural names, as well as logging era names. And I tried to think which ones would fit within the tone of the plot.
3. Use time-period appropriate names.
This is especially critical for historical writers. I generally pull up the list of the most popular names for the year or decade in which my character was born. I also look at lists of names in biographies and research books for the particular time period of my book. In the 1600’s, 29% of men were named John (that’s about 1 out of 3 men!) and 15% of women were named Elizabeth. Thus, in The Preacher’s Bride I felt almost obligated to name my MC’s John and Elizabeth. Not really! But you get my point.
4. Use symbolism if possible.
While we can’t always attach symbolism to names, we can look for ways to give special meaning to some of the names we choose. In my WIP, I looked at the meaning of hero names before choosing one. Whether the reader ever realizes it or not, part of my hero’s character arc is about him learning to live up to his name—which means “strong as a wolf.”
5. Avoid picking names that readers will have a difficult time saying.
I get annoyed when I read character names I can’t pronounce—oddly-spelled or too-long names. This is even more frustrating when the name belongs to the MC and I have to read the “weird” name ten times per page. I suggest avoiding names (as fun and nice as they might be) that might trip up our readers. We should also limit the number of foreign names for the same reason.
6. Avoid having names that start with the same letter or sound.
I keep a running list of every character that crops up in my book—a sheet I can easily scan. I do my best to start each name with a different letter. I don’t want to have a John, Joseph, and Jacob all in the same book. Or a Polly and Molly. When names are too similar, we have to make our readers work harder to remember our characters. And our job as writers is to make the reading experience as smooth and pleasant as possible.
7. Remember, unique doesn’t always mean better.
Sometimes when names are too unique they can distract a reader from the story. I like unique last names, especially when they’re real (like Goodenough or Covenant). But often those kinds of names have a ring of disbelief. When I get too carried away, my editors send me back to the drawing board for a simpler name (as they did with the two examples I mentioned!).
8. Make sure our minor character names don’t overshadow our main characters.
It’s fun to find especially dark and sinister names for our antagonists. In The Doctor’s Lady, one of the bad guys is named Black Squire. He’s a rugged fur trapper that wears a black eye patch. The name fits. But, we have to make sure we don’t spend more time crafting the perfect names for lesser characters so that they become more vibrant and alive than the MC’s.
Your turn! What are some of the tricks or techniques you use for picking your characters’ names?