BLOG

Eight Things To Keep In Mind When Naming Characters

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

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?

42 comments:

  1. I don't have any, really. I write contemporary, so I don't have to make sure my name's are accurate for the time period. Usually the name just comes to me and I go with it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. How funny. I just blogged about this at The Writer's Alley. I suggested that the name matches the character's looks/description. You don't name a character Chadwick Ashburn and him look like a nerd. You also don't usually name your so-good-looking-he-could-be-a-model hero something like Myron, Chester, or Griswald. Of course, you may WANT to name them that to add a little humor! ;)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I enjoyed reading this; I did find it difficult to choose character names for supporting roles, but my main character's name was chosen many years ago. I think names are very important and I remember when I'd first started writing the book, I asked the question on my blog. Feedback I received indicated the name of a supporting character wasn't right, sounded too like a television character in a popular soap. Sometimes, I think we need other opinions when choosing names.

    Thank you for this very informative post.

    CJ xx

    Author of Discovery at Rosehill

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm reading a fantasy novel at the moment where the whole first page is taken up with a pronounciation guide for the names of people, races and animals that the writer has invented, without so much as an explaination of what each one is.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You offer some important insights here. I do find it frustrating when I can't pronounce a name or I have to go back and clarify which character is which.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You know, you'd think that picking names for characters would be easy, but it's really not! Especially when you're talking about main characters in a series - these are names you'll have to live with for a long time. In my case, because my series is set around Salem, MA, I went with names for my female lead that had long standing historical roots in the area. Her name was picked by searching through cemetery records from centuries ago until I found just the right combination. My male lead was not quite that simple since his roots are from another part of the country, and one without that kind of long standing history. But this is definitely an issue that I have been known to spend a lot of time on. There's a lot in a name, so it's not something that we should choose lightly.

    This is where you historical fiction writers get a bit of a break since many of your names are already in the history books! ;)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Interesting! I never realized just how much character names bothered people until I named my MC's mom Bennett. She's a minor character and only in the first three chapters of the book, but critique partners and contest judges have made comments about not liking that name, and all for completely different reasons. I guess i'll change her name eventually.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh, I really like this subject :)

    Usually I choose the name according to the character's personality and background, as well as the story's background. For example, I'll choose a strong name for a warrior, trying to include his traits or the country he was born in. I might look up the meaning of first names or how they sound.

    Lately, I'm using Scrivener and it has a very interesting tool for names.

    I agree with all your above points. :)

    The difficult thing for me is to choose a title for the story or book.

    Thank you for a very interesting post :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Excellent post Jody! As I am currently thinking of changing my hero's name in my current WIP, this was very helpful.

    If you read this post, I was wondering if you would tell us why you named your hero in “The Preacher's Bride”, Costin rather than Bunyan? Was it your publishers request? My WIP is based on a factual person, so it would be helpful to know.

    Once again thanks for the great post!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great advice. I've also looked at what were the most popular names in that decade. And, I use the good, old phone book and baby name books.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Very useful advice! I remember I had a problem with the names of minor characters when both started with the same letter "M" (it was Mohammed and Mahmoud: much too close, I got confused myself!!)

    Names of course have to fit the setting - which means paying attention to local culture and history. But for me, names have a "psychological colour" - it is odd, almost inexplicable, but certain names go with a given personality, like a glove fits a hand. So until the character has acquired a clear personality through action, experience etc I'm never sure of the name and I keep changing it until I feel the name "fits"...

    Again, many thanks for the post - and it was Jackvern who drew my attention to it. It's my first visit, but I like it very much. Great blog here!

    ReplyDelete
  12. It's never the same process. Most of the time my MCs tell me their name fairly early on. If I struggle with a surname or a first name or both, I'll go to my research sources and look up lists of names from the period, or sometimes mine my family tree, which goes back to that time and place (1700s, rural southern VA, NC). I had a time coming up with a surname for the hero in my WIP, and what I settled on was a little surprising, but he seems to wear it well.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Very good advice! My main character has French ancestry, and that comes into play throughout the story, so I chose a name that fits her background and yet is still current: Emilie.

    For minor characters, I tend to come up with those off the top of my head, and then make sure they sound all right in the narrative.

    I had to do research on my villan. He's Creole, so I had to make sure I picked something true to his heritage. That meant a bit of research, but that's one of the fun parts of writing for me:)

    ReplyDelete
  14. I also like to look at popular names and meanings of names. I just had to change my heroine's name to help her come across softer.

    ReplyDelete
  15. A great post again, Jody, thank you!

    As I write stuff that's usually quite "international" (as in, characters from many nationalities), I often look up what are common (first and last) names in certain countries. If you just google "common names in X", you find many lists.

    I think that also gives people you have some idea of how people are called around the world. I actually got some compliments on my characters names because they felt so natural.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I look into name meanings but avoid the symbolism being too obvious. A Christian book I read recently used last names symbolically--Gardner was a gardener and Miss Coldwell was evil and cruel . . . Um, no. That's just silly. But a name that means "wolf" just adds an added dimension to a story.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Great advice here, Jody!

    In one of my books, the hero's name started out as Seth. I loved the name, but every time I read it at the beginning of a sentence, I kept seeing "She". So his name got changed pretty quickly. :)

    ReplyDelete
  18. Interesting post and great advice.

    I don't have any tricks on naming my characters. Somehow, the names just come.

    I write historical fiction so I must be very careful to have period correct names.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I put a good deal of thought into my characters' names, utilizing the items on your excellent list, Jody.

    One thing I do to help readers with secondary characters' names is to see if there's a way I can make them easier to remember. For example, in my debut novel there's an older man who isn't on the page much but has a significant role. His surname is Grayson, and he has--you guessed it--graying hair.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Great topic Jody! This morning I was doing a search on, when is enough editing a book before print enough? And there you were, April 30, 2010, Self-Editing: When is Enough, Enough? I just recently self-published a book, Daddy's Briefcase: My journey through LIVER CANCER. At the age of 23, I was diagnosed with cancer. By the grace of God, I survived and He has guided me to fully share my story. Copies have been available for a month now and I have come across some minor mistakes that just make me cringe. I knew when I okayed for print there would be, even after countless hours of editing and having an editor. But I finally had to say enough is enough...!!! Your post helped me, but I still want to run get everyones copies and fix them!:)

    Oh another note, character names, I looked in the phone book to help me with my character's names. Because my story is so personal, I changed my characters names for their privacy. My sister called me after reading my book, she couldn't believe the name I picked for her. It was her husband's ex fiancée name, oops! Sorry, bout that! We just died laughing...

    I really like your blog,
    ashley :)

    ReplyDelete
  21. I've had an interest in names for years and so I've gathered many books about them, origins and meanings and so on. When I'm naming a main character I usually make lists of names that potentially fit the character, and try them out until I find one that sounds right to my ear. Since I write romance, the love interest's name gets the same treatment and then I'll try a few in combination to make sure their names work together.

    Sometimes a character just shows up and tells me her name, which is fine too.

    Last names tend to come from books as well, though I've also found good ones in move and TV show end credits. Sometimes I want something symbolic, though. For instance, for a policeman character I wanted something to imply a protector, but names like Sheppard or Knight are too heavy-handed. I ultimately went with Archer.

    I also like to go to sites like http://names.mongabay.com/data/3000.html, which draws from the US census, for last names. I usually choose one in the 3000s: not as common as Smith and Jones, but common enough not to be jarring.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Amanda asked: I was wondering if you would tell us why you named your hero in “The Preacher's Bride”, Costin rather than Bunyan? Was it your publishers request?

    My Answer: Amanda, you are absolutely correct. My publisher asked me to change the last name in order to make the book less "biographical" and more "fictionalized." We wanted the book to appeal to a wider audience and not to scare away romance lovers who might not necessarily like the biographical nature of a book. So we went with the "inspired by" aspect, and in doing so, changed the names. This also gave me the freedom to change a few other things (like the ending).

    ReplyDelete
  23. I might just add (as a post script to Amanda's question), that NAMES are RARELY a deal breaker when it comes to getting a contract. If publishers don't like the names you've chosen, that is something you and your agent can negoiate with them during the deal. Or you can work with your publisher to find a compromise that both of you like. I suggest that writers do the best they can to pick names, but realize that as with the book title, names are subject to change too.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Thanks for your thoughts on naming characters! I have a couple of baby naming web sites saved to my "Writing Toolbox" favorites folder, because I enjoy the flexibility of searching by time frame or meaning as appropriate. When I'm choosing a name for its symbolism, I like to pick one that isn't too obvious. I think of it as an "Easter egg" for any readers who think to look it up!

    ReplyDelete
  25. I think you really hit the nail on the the head with that post. Matching the setting a being realistic are my primary focus when selecting a name. After that, I usually pay the most attention to their heritage. Where did their surname originate? It can add that little bit of depth to family history if someone looks.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Sometimes in my fantasy stories I'll pick a culture to base my fictional setting on. I'll then choose my character names accordingly.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Beatrix Potter walked around Brompton Cemetery in London and found here characters' names that way. There lies buried a Jeremiah Fisher and Peter Rabbett.

    I always loved that story, especially when walking through that cemetery, which was at the end of the road where I lived in London.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Jody, this kind of goes a long with the time era point. I not only looked up meanings of my MC names, but I looked up the years my characters would have been born to see what names were popular that year.

    I also enjoy naming side characters after people I know - always stating, of course, that the character IS NOT the person I named them after.

    I used to use a baby name book, but I got a book that I think is put out by Writer's Digest called "Character Naming." It's a great resource!

    ReplyDelete
  29. I love coming up with my characters' names. It's not always easy--sometimes it takes a LOT of research--but when the right name appears, I just feel the pieces of that character click into place.

    I think it's important to give names some thought even if you're writing contemporary (as I do). You still need to consider whether they're from the US, and if so, what region; the era in which they were born; social class; and personality traits.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I so agree that having too many character names that start with the same letter gets confusing.

    The Social Security website lets you search for popular names by birth year. I check that out sometimes when I'm trying to name a character.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I watch the credits at the end of TV programmes or movies. I often change names during the writing process as I get to know this or that character.

    When I couldn't come up with a name for a Regency villain I asked on Twitter and got some useful results. I ended up using a name of my own but the suggestions sparked off ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Yep, I've made some of these mistakes! *still learning* Thanks for the great tips!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Great thoughts! I love the name Elizabeth, and I agree that our preferences for names are so individual.

    ReplyDelete
  34. I've found that names of more than 2 syllables can be hard, in terms of conversational flow, so I would suggest a name that if it is more than 2 syllables can be easily reduced to a nickname/shorter version. Also love to look up the name meaning :) It feels so good when you find the perfect name.

    I've actually never picked traits before the name, I've picked the name before I even wrote them in. I should try it the other way and see if it works better.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I write epic/traditional fantasy so I can be a little more liberal (unusual) about name selection. I do try to make them interesting and match the characters (somehow a wizard named Fred just doesn't feel right) and mix in "normal" names to offset the MC's. However, you offer some great ideas on the subject.

    ReplyDelete
  36. I love love love creating names for characters, when I was a teen I used to have notebooks filled with name doodles. Historical and cultural accuracy is so important, but when it comes to fantasy I appreciate made-up or interesting names as long as they are easy to pronounce! My eyes tend to just glaze over them otherwise...

    ReplyDelete
  37. I'm writing 19th century mysteries, so I like to troll old college graduation lists of names, along with the Hartford, CT business directory of 1896, which is the year my first book is set. I got great names from these sources! Thanks, Jody, for the great advice.

    ReplyDelete
  38. I tend to approach it much the same way I approached naming my kid.

    I pay attention to names I see in the credits of movies, tv shows, books, and the ones that stand out, I seek out their origins and meanings. If they seem right, I start with them. As the character develops, then I sometimes go back and change the name to one that seems to be "more them".

    (My son was going to be named "Dexter Haven West", but partway through the pregnancy, he just didn't "feel" like a Dexter. Happens the same with characters for me)

    Loved this post! Really good advice.

    ReplyDelete
  39. "We should also limit the number of foreign names for the same reason."

    I take issue with this. Foreign to who, exactly? White Americans? I think if a reader runs across a difficult to announce name, it's better to think of it as a symbol than a word. That might help avoid the tripping up issue. I think that's better than making something less "foreign."

    ReplyDelete
  40. Did my comment get deleted? I'll ask again: what does foreign mean? Foreign to whom? I take exception to the word only because it's relative and it sounds like you're saying authors should default to simple WASP names.

    ReplyDelete
  41. Tiger, You're comment may have gotten deleted by Blogger during the past few days. They've had some major issues. One of my most recent posts about Showing Versus Telling lost about two-thirds of the comments. So, I'm sorry about that. Hope Blogger will eventually restore everything.

    Anyway, thank you for contributing to the discussion. I think any time we add too many names that are difficult to pronounce, readers get frustrated. That can include difficult-to pronounce science fiction names, as well as names the majority of our English-speaking readers would have trouble saying.

    ReplyDelete
  42. I totally agree characters names should be ones that are easy to pronounce. When I find I have a difficult time pronouncing names, I often wonder why the author chose such names. It makes me want to quit on the book and find something that doesn't give me such difficulty. I also wonder why some titles have long, hard to pronounce words.
    Names in my books are kept simple, such as Greg, Lisa, Marta, Maggie and Toby.
    Callie Norse

    ReplyDelete

© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!