What’s in a Name? Choose Character Names Carefully

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:

http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/25-How2-CharacterNames.html

http://www.babynames.com/character-names.php

http://www.charlottedillon.com/characters.html

http://www.wikihow.com/Name-Your-Fictional-Character

http://suite101.com/article/naming-fictional-characters-a48248

How do you come up with character names?

 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What’s in a Name? Choose Character Names Carefully

  1. Pat

    Interesting post and well worth a lot of consideration.
    I usually give my characters simple names to start with, nondescript if you like and change them fairly quickly into the writing, but sometimes those names stick around for two or three chapters.
    I like names to have a depth to them, so underlying meanings work for me. A baddie might have a name that mimics or rhymes with a devil-type name, or is a pun or anagram, that sort of thing. Even if no one else gets the similarity or the pun in my names, they fix a personality for me and help me to hold onto that personality while I write.
    And I hate books where characters have names that begin the same. Brothers called Michael Malcolm and Mitch. Irritating.

    • Pat,
      I am right with you on all points. I believe writers must spend a lot of time coming up with the best name for their characters. It makes a big difference in making a character come alive. Thanks for sharing your comment.

      Chris

  2. I have such trouble naming characters… And titling fiction… And naming pets… Let’s just say I tend to think too hard on them. When I stop thinking and allow a name to simply come to me (or run with a joking suggestion from my fiancé, such as the heroine in my zombie novel being called Dawn — Get it?), it tends to work out a bit better.

    Thank you for the links. Hopefully they will help me get the rest of my characters suitably named.

    • Paige,
      Thanks for your comment. You are not alone. It’s not easy coming up with just the right name for characters. There are names that are good enough but I always strive for something better. Sometimes getting others involved, as you did, can be a good technique. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

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