Have you ever read a book where the name of the main character was jarring to you, seemed inappropriate, or just wrong? Or have you mixed up two characters because their names were similar? Or said “Who’s that?” because suddenly the author started using a character’s nickname or first name, when previously all you knew was their last name? What you choose to name your characters can be the difference between annoying/confusing your readers and having the story flow naturally, with all the little details falling into place to make a seamless, believable story world.
A few years ago, I did a critique of a novel in which the cruel, abusive father was named “Danny” and his eight-year-old abused son was named “John.” I definitely thought “Danny” sounded much more like a nice kid than a nasty adult, and why not give the young boy a more kid-like name, like “Johnny”? Switching the two would have worked fine, too.
Here are some tips for naming your characters:
- Avoid too-common and too-forgettable names like “Bill Smith” or “Ed Jones.”
- Avoid really weird, unusual names that draw attention to themselves — unless it’s for a really weird character!
- Choose a name that fits the character’s personality and role. Don’t name your he-man hero “Harold” or “Wilfred,” or your despicable villain “David” or “Josh” or “Jordan” or “Jason” or “Matt” or any other very popular name. Don’t call your smart, sassy, attractive heroine “Gertrude” or “Henrietta” or “Josephine.”
- Also, to reflect the actual makeup of North American society, be sure to use some characters and names from other ethnic backgrounds besides Anglo-Saxon.
- Be flexible about the names you choose. As your story and characters develop, you may decide to rename some of them to suit new character traits they’ve taken on. Then you can just use your “Find and Replace” function to change the name throughout the whole manuscript in seconds.
- If you’re writing historical fiction, research common names for that era and location. Don’t make the mistake of calling your 18th-century heroine, for example, “Taylor” (used only for males in that era).
- Avoid archaic-sounding, old-fashioned names for contemporary characters, like “Ebenezer” or “Cuthbert.”
- Help your readers remember who’s who by not naming characters similar names, like “Jason,” and “Jordan”; or “Eileen” and “Ellie.” In fact, it’s best to avoid using the same first letter for different characters’ names in the same book, or even similar internal sounds, like “Janice” and “Alice.”
- You can help the readers out even more by varying the syllables in names, too, like “Chris,” “Molly,” “Jennifer,” and “Alexandra.”
- Finally, what about characters who are called different names by different people? That can get confusing for readers who are barreling along trying to keep up with your fast-paced plot. Suppose you have a female police officer named Caroline Hunter. The other officers call her “Hunter” at work, her friends call her “Caroline” and her family calls her “Carrie.” It would be unrealistic to have her friends and family call her “Hunter” just to help the readers out. So, as a reminder, be sure to throw in her full name from time to time, like during introductions or whatever.
- Also, if you start out a scene using “Hunter,” it’s best to avoid switching to “Caroline,” as the inattentive reader might suddenly wonder who this Caroline is who just walked in. Keep “Hunter” for that scene, with perhaps the occasional use of her full name. If she’s with her parents and sister, she’ll be “Carrie” but you could throw in the “Caroline” or “Hunter” somewhere, just as a reminder, like when she’s answering the phone, or when a neighbor kid addresses her mom as “Mrs. Hunter,” etc.
Stumped for a name? Look through the phone book or name books, or Google “popular names for boys” or “popular names for girls” or “popular names in the 18th century” or “popular Irish names” or whatever. As you’re searching, make lists of names and nicknames that appeal to you for future writing, under different categories, like “hero,” “heroine,” “male villain,” “female villain,” “best friend,” “minor tough guy,” etc.
What about you? Have you ever read a book where you thought the main character’s name was “off”? Or you got confused as to who was who?
Guest blogger Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, romance, YA, and historical fiction. Jodie’s services range from developmental and substantive editing to light final copy editing and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at http://www.jodierennerediting.com/ and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/.
Posted by Maryann Miller who always appreciates some tips for naming characters. Don't name every male character Mark for Pete's sake. Hmmm. Pete is a pretty good name.