Elmore Leonard once told a story about the difficulty he was having with one of his characters. He just couldn’t get the character right and it frustrated him. Then he realized what the problem was. The character had the wrong name. He thought hard about it and renamed the character and then the character came alive for him.
Character names matter and writers should consider carefully the names they give to their characters. A character’s name evokes an image in the mind of the reader. A character named Bruiser gives the reader a different picture than one named Bartholomew. A character’s name must be consistent with her background and the time period in which the story takes place.
Here are some tips in coming up with strong character names:
- Make it easy to pronounce. A character named Zbsyskrksi will stop the reader dead every time.
- Avoid generic names. A character called Jack Jones is not memorable.
- Choose a name that is appropriate to the occupation of persona of the character. Think Don “Vito” Corleone. A writer wouldn’t call a Mafia don Jacques LaFleur.
- Select a name that was popular in the era in which the story takes place. Martha may have been a popular name a century ago, but it’s considered an old person’s name today.
- Make sure the name aligns with the character’s looks and appearance. A fashion model named Crystal or Star works, but Mabel doesn’t cut it.
- Avoid character’s with similar sounding names (example: Joel and Noel). It’s too confusing for the reader.
The most important aspect of a character’s name is that it must be memorable. Character names must evoke the intended emotional response. Scarlett O’Hara is strong-willed, petulant and manipulative. Harry Potter is an every-man name for an ordinary child with extraordinary powers. Severus Snape is an even better name, reflecting a complex man torn by conflicting emotions.
When it came to naming my main character in my novel, Small Change, I wanted an ethnic, blue-collar name. I chose John Sykowski. The family with whom they became intertwined was headed by a second-generation minister. I was going for an old-line English name. I selected Crandale. Two of my critics hated the name and urged me to change it. I thought carefully about doing that, but it felt right to me so I stuck with it. The author should listen to well-intentioned advice, but must trust her instincts.
Here are more resources on character names:
How do you come up with character names?