Thursday, September 22, 2011

Be My Guest: Jodie Renner

What’s in a Name? Naming Your Characters

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 and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at

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.

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  1. Names can certainly be confusing ... the girl of Rocky Raccoon's fancy was Magil, yet she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy.

  2. I think some writers try to be too clever with character names, but they just end up confusing the reader. Names that don't fit an era or a personality can be hard to buy, but I have a harder time with writers who can't make up their minds how to refer to characters in narrative. For example, a character is introduced as Alysanne. Other characters in dialogue may refer to her as "Aly," "Anne," even "Lys." Drives me crazy to the point of giving up on reading further when the writer in narrative is all over the place referring to the character with her various nicknames. Do that with multiple characters in a scene and you've lost me completely. I think the writer should choose one name to use in narrative and stick to it.

  3. Having written a book called "What's in a Name?" I can appreciate this post. It was a challenge (which I hoped I met) to make sure the readers knew who the main characters were despite the fact that they had to use false names throughout the book.

    It's important, I think, that when you name a character you know how they all think of themselves. One pet peeve of mine (purely personal) is to have a character think of a parent by a first name, but in dialogue to call him Pop. If he's "Pop" to the character, then that's the name that should be used when you're in his POV.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Great post. I have some concerns with my current WIP when it comes to names.

    So far, my MC’s first name has been Visa. Since the meaning of the word means ‘things seen’ and she was born blind, I like the way it works with that aspect of the story, as well as a few others.

    On the other hand, I don’t want my readers to constantly be distracted thinking of credit cards or travel visas, or just thinking the name is plain silly.

    Now this is Sci-Fi so I know I have some latitude when it comes to unusual names but it still worries me a bit.

  5. I'd like to add: If there's a chance your book could become a series, think long and hard about every name...because you'll be stuck with it. I have no series regrets about any of my Detective Jackson character names, but I might have made some changes had I known how much life some of those characters would end up with.

  6. Jodie, thanks for this post, which so many need to read. I tell my clients that character names aren't really "names" so much as they are "tags" so that readers can identify who's who. It should clear things up, not muddy the waters.

    Male writers in general, I've found, seem most guilty of the double-naming syndrome. Guys, is this a locker room thing, or what? "His name was Michael. Mitch, to his family, but I always knew him as Michelob because of that time when..." I've had some clients where the male protagonist is double- and triple-naming every single character. And I'm watching the word count accumulate and I'm thinking, "When is the story going to start?"

  7. Kathryn said: "Male writers in general, I've found, seem most guilty of the double-naming syndrome. Guys, is this a locker room thing, or what? "His name was Michael. Mitch, to his family, but I always knew him as Michelob because of that time when..." I've had some clients where the male protagonist is double- and triple-naming every single character."

    Ha, you read my first MS didn't you? ;)

  8. Good one, Christopher! I remember that song well. Kinda dates us though, doesn't it! LOL

    Vince, I absolutely agree with you. Two big no-nos: Don't confuse the reader, and don't annoy the reader. Anything that takes the reader out of the story is problematic.

    And yes, Terry, the POV character should describe, think of and call someone by the same name. It would be ludicrous, in a scene with Mrs. Wilson's son as the POV character, for him to say "Mrs. Wilson came in the room." He's the narrator for that scene, so we're "in his head" for that scene, and she's his mom, not "Mrs. Wilson."

  9. E.C., I think I might be distracted by the usual meaning of "Visa". It's an interesting connection, but best not to risk distracting your readers, I think.

    Excellent point, LJ, as a writer of a popular detective series! The name better still fit the character 3 or 4 books later!

    Kathryn - I agree. That can get to be a bit much. Let's just get the characters named and get on with their story!

  10. I'd like to stress the importance of thinking of our multicultural reality. Writers and editors seem to prefer Anglo-Saxon first names; if they're writing fantasy or historical fiction, they tend to use Celtic or Celtic-sounding names.
    My WIP is set in 6th-Century eastern Europe and I carefully researched names from that time and place. Yet a beta reader balked at historically accurate names like "Javor," "Roslaw," and the moon-goddess, Mysyach.
    We need to watch those unconscious biases.

  11. I've used a phone book from time to time, and will brainstorm until I finally think I have just the right name. And nine times out of ten, I'll change it half-way through the manuscript.

    Another good source for contemporary names is THE BABY NAME SURVEY BOOK by Lansky and Sinrod. What makes it unique is that it includes the public's perceptions to the person behind the name.

    Great post, Jodie!

  12. Yes, "Written Words," I really think it's important for our novels, set in North America, to be peopled with characters who reflect our multicultural society, not only those with British heritage. And don't be afraid to name them appropriately for their cultural heritage. Thankfully, we're no longer in the "Dick and Jane" era, where all fiction characters had to be straight from white, middle-class America, or else were relegated to being "colorful extras."

  13. Peg, thanks for letting us know about THE BABY NAME SURVEY BOOK by Lansky and Sinrod, which is unique in including the public's perceptions to the person behind the name.

    A great idea! I'm going to Google that.

  14. Excellent post! I know I've retro-fitted names that I realized were too similar. Here's a post I wrote for Nameberry about naming characters that might also be of interest.

  15. My fantasy world is populated by some descendents of the Aztecs. I used an Aztec baby name site to find some ideas, but many were unpronounceable. I really had to weed through them to find ones that would work.

    I needed a specific meaning for the name of the tribe, so I went to a translator site and entered what I needed the name to mean. What came out was serendipitously awesome. "Tepehuaco." They who came to conquer.

  16. Joanne - great post, and very well-written!

    Scooter - What's the name or URL of that translator site? Sounds very useful.

  17. I will stop reading a book if the names start changing because other characters are using pet names or nick names that may not even remotely be connected to the given name.

    And I agree that we do have to think about odd associations with names. I kind of like the idea of E.C.'s character named Visa because of what it means for the story, but I did think of the credit card. Maybe if the spelling was different - Viza?

  18. Ooh, for some reason I had never considered simply spelling it differently. Thank you Maryann that is a wonderful idea.

  19. Maryann, writers would do well to heed warnings about seemingly benign practices that annoy and turn off readers, like suddenly using a different name for a character.

  20. My favorite source for character names is from the daily obituary in the newspaper. Some great combinations there! You know, funny story about character names. I started reading a cozy mystery series by a very prolific and popular author, who changed the antagonist's name about a third of the way through a book. I'm guessing it was before find & replace became a popular computer tool. It was very confusing!

  21. I read a manuscript and the villian's name was Jon Stewart. I thought she was kidding. Turns out she never heard of him or Comedy Central.

    Mary Jo

  22. Sharply pointed post, Jodie. Thanks. I admit to being drawn to distinctive, memorable, but believable character names. The female protagonist of Web Games is Destiny Allen, so named by her counter-cultural ex-commune parents. (It's also a hidden nod to my first novel, Bashert, a reference that a few readers have actually caught.)

    Google has been a great engine for character names in my writing, especially ethnic and foreign names, but I also recommend validating choices with a real live member of the community, as I did for the Palestinian names I used in Bashert and The Dome. This way you avoid names that are either too common or too rare or that have some special--unintended--meaning within the culture.

  23. Mary Jo - that's funny! A good name for a talk-show host; not such a good name for a villain!

    Larry/Lior - excellent advice, especially "I also recommend validating choices with a real live member of the community, as I did for the Palestinian names I used in Bashert and The Dome. This way you avoid names that are either too common or too rare or that have some special--unintended--meaning within the culture." That would eliminate any embarrassing cultural faux-pas.

  24. The first time I read it, "The Lord of the Rings" confused the hell out of me. Not only because there are a lot of characters to keep track of (and the two main bad guys both start with "S"), but especially because of the way Tolkien handles Aragorn's many names.

    We are first introduced to him as Strider, which is fair enough, but then, as name after name for the character is revealed--Aragorn, Elvenstar, the DĂșnedan, and Thorengil, to name just a few--Tolkien often fails to point out to us that that's the same guy. I remember spending pages upon pages wonder who "that new character" was and why everyone seemed to know him until I realized, "Oh, wait, that's just Strider again!"

  25. thanks for sharing for some reason I had never considered simply spelling it differently. Thank you Maryann that is a wonderful idea.


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