Picking The Right Names For Your Characters

Yellow notes

A while back I wrote a blog post with some good sources for character names. But how do you pick the right names?

Don’t underestimate the importance of names. Scarlett O’Hara‘s first name was originally going to be Pansy. Can you even begin to imagine a Pansy as the protagonist of Gone With The Wind?

I usually can’t even start writing a story until I’ve found the right names for at least my lead characters, though I have changed names mid-manuscript.

Here are a few thoughts on finding the perfect character names:

1. Consider names that have meanings that reflect your characters in some manner. Personally, I think Stephenie Meyer went a little overboard when she named her heroine Bella Swann, but if you’re a tad less literal, you can find a great name for your character.

For instance, Dorothy Gale, of The Wizard of Oz, is a clever name as she is literally blown away by a storm to the land of Oz.  The aforementioned Scarlett is a woman who loves a married man for the course of the entire story. In Somerset Maugham’s book The Razor’s Edge, there’s a character named Gray, who suffers a nervous breakdown.  (In all these instances, the writers gave the characters one symbolic name, rather than the two Meyer gave hers–making them less obvious and trite.)

2. Or, go the opposite way and choose an ironic name.  In Will Grayson Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan, there’s a character named Tiny. Who is anything but.

3. Easter eggs, yay or nay? An Easter egg is an inside joke, or a reference to something in fiction, history, or pop culture. The sci-fi website i09 recently had an opinion piece stating that “Easter eggs” in the form of character names should be banned.

While I agree that certain things have been overdone (i.e. a character named Lucy in a vampire story) I rather like Easter egg names. The television series Lost was chock-full of them, and part of the fun of the show was looking up the names of the characters to find out who or what they referred to.

As with symbolic names, the key is subtlety and avoiding something that’s been overdone. So, no scientists with assistants name Igor, or dogs named Einstein.

4. If you’re writing historical fiction, please pick names true to the era. This is a pet peeve of mine. A heroine living in the 15th century named Mackenzie is . . . stupid. Yes, it’s fiction, and yes, I can understand that there were far fewer names used back then. It can seem boring to use only common names like John or Robert or Anne or Jane.

Do a little research. There are era-appropriate names that are not obvious. Nomenclature is a fascinating subject and I have a ball every time I’m writing something historical searching for interesting, era-appropriate names.

Author Ken Follett is especially good at this: his heroine in Pillars of the Earth is named Aliena, and his heroine in World Without End is named Caris. Both unusual but still era-appropriate names.

5. Even if you’re writing modern fiction, pay attention to generation-appropriate names. With every generation, names go in and out of style. When I was a little girl, there was a Cheryl, a Sherry, and a Cherry in my class. Cheryl and Sherry and every variation you can think of were very popular at the time. While the names haven’t disappeared completely, it’s rare to come across a twenty year old today named Sherry. If you were creating a middle aged character, Sherry or Cheryl would be appropriate.

A grandmother today named Madison? Not likely. But she might be a Barbara or a Linda or a Carol.

6. A futuristic setting doesn’t have to mean crazy or made-up names. Think about it for a minute. There are names still in use–some very popular ones, too–that have been around for literally thousands of years. So why would they disappear a century or two into the future?

Still, since names do evolve from era to era (diminutive versions, spellings and pronunciations can change) you can take names from today and refashion them for a futuristic setting.

Suzanne Collins created a complex nomenclature for Panem’s society in The Hunger Games series. She used class distinction (characters who reside in the Capitol have names culled from Imperial Rome) as well as different naming traditions from district to district (i.e. names reflecting the industries of particular districts).

She also used a lot of flower and plant names. There have been eras in the past when naming children, girls especially, after flowers and plants was very popular. No reason to think it couldn’t happen again in the future. You could create your own naming fad for your futuristic society.

7. Avoid names within one story that sound too much alike. Especially if you’re writing in the fantasy genre. George R. R. Martin, I’m looking at you. They’ve already changed the names of some of the characters for the TV series Game Of Thrones to avoid confusion.

As well as confusing, it can also come across as lazy. I seem to recall that Michael Crichton had an Ellie, Ellen and Eleanor in the book Jurassic Park. Sure, it was still a best seller, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s annoying.

8. Avoid names that are too long or difficult to pronounce. If nothing else, you’ll curtail fights among readers about the correct pronunciation of a name. There were Hunger Games fans breathlessly waiting for the movie version of Catching Fire to find out if Johanna Mason‘s first name is pronounced Jo-anna or Jo-hanna. Really, there were long and intense discussions about this. And it’s not even that unusual a name. (It’s Jo-anna, btw. Phew, now we can rest easy at night.)

9. On the other hand, also avoid names that are too common. Your characters are special, their names should be in some way, too. You can do way better than Mary Jones or Don Smith. Or Juan Sanchez, for that matter.

10. This is especially important if you have a large cast of characters. Stephen King is a genius when naming a large number of characters for his books. I can’t honestly say that I can keep straight who every single character is while whipping my way though one of his 1,000 page tomes, but he manages to make it much easier by using a wide variety of names (both first and surnames). Some have nicknames, some more formal names, some have surnames for first names. He culls surnames from various places around the world. The key to keeping your readers from becoming confused is variety.

7 thoughts on “Picking The Right Names For Your Characters

  1. Great post, Debbie. As a reader, I’m particularly sensitive to Issue #5. I’ve picked up many a novel (from best-selling authors, mind you, not that I’ll name names) whose characters’ names make the story sound like it’s set in a retirement community. And these people are supposed to be in their 20’s and 30’s, lol

    1. Yes, that drives me CRAZY when young people in contemporary books have out-of-fashion names. One would be O.K., a whole book full of them is another story.

      I have to say, after ragging on Stephenie Meyer for creating a heroine named (shudder) Bella Swann, she did do a pretty good job of choosing names that are era-appropriate for her characters, including the vampires who were born human in several different eras. Rosalie, Esme, Alice and Jasper are all appropriate names for the times the characters would have been born in. And Bella, or Isabella, is a name that’s been popular for long enough that it makes sense for a contemporary teen to have that name.

      I will never forgive her, however, for creating the horrible name Renesme–and I pity the poor babies who will get slapped with that name by fans of the books.

  2. Reblogged this on WakeWriters and commented:
    Good points to picking names. Sometimes mine are too generic but then again I can spend too much time thinking of names that are unique. You can also add that the spelling of names changes according to region, like Bella’s name is Swann in the south but Swan in the north. Tell southerners that there’s only one “n” and they’ll stick an “i” in there and make it Swain because “Swan” just doesn’t exist down here except for transplants. (Yep, it’s a family name. :D)

    1. Thanks so much for the reblog!

      Very true about regional names. I once wrote a couple of stories set in the antebellum South, and it was a lot of fun researching both surnames and naming traditions for the time and place.

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