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?
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 believe the naming process will 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 finalizing the name.
I get to know as much about my character as possible before finalizing the 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 Unending Devotion, 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 main characters 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 main character 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. I've noticed that middle grade and YA books can push the limits. For example, I'm reading The Water Horse by Dick King-Smith with my kids. The grouchy, complaining grandfather is aptly named Grumble.
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 antagonists is named the Black Squire. He's rough trapper that wears a black eye patch. In Rebellious Heart, the bad guy is Lieutenant Wolfe. Yes, he's predatory like a wolf. He's hunting for smugglers and enjoys it just a tad too much. As we have fun shaping our minor characters, we have to make sure their names and personalities don't become more vibrant and alive than the main characters.
What about YOU? What annoys you most about character names? Do you have any advice or method for how to come up with the perfect name?