Monday, July 12, 2010

Naming Your Characters

You’ve either just started writing your next manuscript or finished your book. As you start penning page one or begin your editing process and carefully go through making corrections, please consider the names you’ve given (or are about to give) your heroes and heroines!

As a reader, I would like to see authors use real names and stop with the made-up ones. I want to read about characters I can relate to; a name that sounds normal. Yes, in other world, fantasy books, go ahead and call someone Phryanx and Xr24pq if you want. That's normal for whatever world you create.

Sure. Foreign countries, you say. Have to use foreign names. Okay. Go for it. What about Family names? Well, if it fits in your story and enhances it, then do it. Same goes for historicals. Spread them on your pages and I'll happily accept them but remember that if readers stumble over names that are foreign, family, or historically correct but hard to pronounce, they might get frustrated and not finish your masterpiece.

Your characters are your children. Would you name one of them "Zip-a-dee-do-dah"? I remember reading an article about a woman who named her child this because she so-o-o loved the song. Can you imagine an eighteen-year-old in high school with this handle? Forget that. What about elementary school? College? Business world? A well-built hunk, the hero in your book?

I once overheard a woman talking about "Perkins" and at first thought she was telling tales (no pun intended) about her dog. When she mentioned breastfeeding him I realized my mistake! Turned out Perkins was her maiden name so she gave it to her son as his first name. What would his nickname be? Perky? Can you visualize Mr. "Tall, Dark, and Handsome" being called “Perky”?

Ambivalent names. If your character's a woman, give a name recognizable as such. Remember the song, "A Boy Named Sue" by Johnny Cash? Now, if it's a western you're writing and your character's name is Sioux as in Indian, I can accept that and happily will read further into your story.

I once babysat for a darling child. Cute infant I loved taking care of. One day, the family's church called and a very embarrassed and apologetic woman said she needed to ask something for the baby's upcoming baptism. Her question? "Is Morgan Taylor (first and middle name) a boy or a girl?" Well, how would anyone know just by the name?

What do you think about the name Brooklyn? Boy or girl? Actually it's my dog's name. And, I've seen it used for both boys and girls. A teacher looking at the name on a list couldn't tell.

Naming characters after cities, states, whatever. Haven't we had enough of names like Dakota, Yuma, Jackson, Paris? Oh, don't get me started on Hollywood names! Apple? Someone named after a fruit? Do we need these names in your novels?

Please don't mix names to make them sound "prettier". Sharindalynn, Annalisajo, Marydeanne (I knew one in college) get the picture. And two-named first names like Billy Bob? Does it really fit in the culture you're creating and you just have to use it? (The tattooed name you see here is for a pet black widow spider.)
 What happened with just using names like Mike? Nancy? Greg? Katie? I know people with these names. And those are the names I'd like to read in your book!

Photos: Flickr: graphic.ward, Anne Varak, and red5standing's photostreams.


  1. I love this post and agree 100%

  2. Names make or break a story for me!

  3. I try to stick with regular names. And when Ms Paltrow and hubby were having a boy, I snarkily suggested 'Mango' and wondered when the twins 'Peaches' and 'Plum' would make their appearance.

    My problem is last names, and in one book, I used the first name 'Mike' twice. Oops...

  4. You are right on the mark! I write historicals and tend to have related symbolism in the names, but I also try very hard to make sure they are pronouncable so readers won't stumble over them. In my wip, I have both Gaelic and Roman names. I'm being careful of a couple of things. One, the name Michael in Scots is Micheal... how many readers will call me on it if I use the correct Scot spelling? who knows. I'm going with the traditional spelling. I have a character who is descended from the Medea of yore. Now the name is pronounced May-day-ah. Most readers don't know that and I'm not about to put a Latin-Greek pronunciation guide in my book. I'm just trying to pick names that will be historically accurate, but not stumbling blocks.
    Thanks for addressing this. It's been one of my petpeeves for ages.

  5. I write historicals and use classic names. Fun can be had with real names. The hero of my current release is named John Badcock and I used his last name as a double entendre for the title of the book.

    I hate reading a book where the hero or heroine has the same name as someone I don't like (say my X or his insane girlfriend) but I won't toss away the book because of it if the story is good.

    But I do love the Harry Potter names. Classic! I even named my cat Severus. :-)

  6. I hate naming characters, and I've worried that I've used names that were a bit too common in the past. However, I also remember reading books where I had trouble concentrating on the story because I was never sure how to pronounce the name and it drove me crazy!

  7. I write scifi but I try to keep the names easy to figure out. If there may be some confusion, I try to work into the story how to say the name correctly.

    I collect names from everywhere I can find them: movie credits, TV show credits, the phone book, etc. And I must admit that I have several that are questionable, because you just can't tell if it's male or female. While others, I am absolutely clueless as to how to say. If I can't figure out how to pronounce it myself, then I just don't use it.

    I also have trouble reading books with the h/h having the same name as one of my kids. Especially the hotter stuff. And there's one name I absolutely hate, due to bad run ins with not one but TWO people by that same name. Yeah, I'm just lucky there I guess.

  8. Oh, I totally agree! I hate bad character names! I especially hate it when authors stick multiple characters in their books - all with bad names! I know a couple who just named their baby Malibu Barbie something-something. Can you imagine how much that kid will hate them when she's older???
    I once read that a character should have a short, strong, simple name. All the better to resonate with the reader.

  9. I've been using simple common names for my characters because it's a character's personalities and a readers connection with them that makes them memorable or not... No one is impressed with crazy, forgettable name. there's just too much competition with crazy names in real life!
    For instance James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" The dashing hero we know in the movie versions as Nathaniel Hawkeye was originally named"Natty Bumppo" in the books!!! Bad
    XXOO Kat

  10. LOL! Got a giggle when I read Paris. But seriously, my characters names have to fit the situation. And something I do is take their ethnic background into consideration every time.

    I didn't realize that I'd given my h/h rhyming names in my current WIP and as much as I'd like to keep the hero's name, this is a sequel to another book where the heroine has already appeared so his name is the one that needs to change.

    Another thing that can really bug me though is a too modern name in an historical book. Puts me right off.

  11. Thanks for all the great comments...names can sure be tough to choose, but we all have to pick ones that feel right for our books and that readers will relate to!

  12. You are correct once again! I just watched Dune again last night and am simply floored by the names...Usul...chani...moa'dib (can't even spell it!) Evben in my shifters book, I named my cats Cal and Gar (short for Garret). LOL!

  13. Definitely give your characters a name to fit the story, but make sure all your names don't start with the same letter or they don't rhyme. Look at the initials too. My grandermother's name spelled RAT. that still makes me laugh when I think about it.

    Great post, Marianne.

  14. In my day job, I get to see a lot of unusual names. I've seen newborns named Velveeta, Margarine, Successful, Hermajesty (think about it; it'll come to you), Surprise, Miracle, and the triplets: Xenia, Xerxes, and Xenobia.

  15. Good grief...and I thought "Zip-a-dee-do-dah" and Apple were bad!
    Thanks, Gina, for names NOT to use!

  16. I like short simple names for my hero and heroine.

    I read in a blog post that you name your character simple names that you would give your dog. Maybe that's over simplifying but you get the picture.

    In my stories its usually the bad guy and gals who get the longer names.


  17. In my next book, The Deceived, the hero's name is Mike. I agree with you, totally.


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