Fiction Writing–Character Names

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on August 5, 2007 0 Comments

 

One of the key elements to a work of fiction is the characters' names.

Names can make or break a story.  They can set mood or setting at their first appearance.  They can be attention-stealing or merely standard, work-horse words.

Or, they could be so out of place that readers never connect with the story and the characters, held at a distance by the incongruity of a rough, romantic protagonist with the name of Jellybean.

 

Considerations for naming characters–

  • Do the names fit the period, the setting, the tone?  Names should match the time period of your tale.  Naming someone from 17th century Europe, Mickey Mouse, even as a nickname, is probably not wise.  Does your story take place in Russia?  Consider Russian names over English ones.  Is the story dark?  Consider harsh names to match.  Or, choose softer names for a character or two for contrast.  Is the story light with humor?  Look for names that elicit chuckles.

  • Major characters can use stronger, more notable names than minor characters.  Is the name for your protagonist too bland or common?  What of your antagonist?  On the other hand, are the names too exotic or unbelieveable?
  • Are your names pronounceable?  Even in sci-fi and otherworldly stories, readers must be able to identify with the characters.  And most important for this is being able to pronounce the names.  The letters might look good on the page, but remember that readers hear what they read.  Use names to draw readers in, not ones that keep them away.

    Xygkkil and Mnopq might not be the best choices for your 23rd-century lovers.

  • Are there too many odd names?  Readers need to be able to latch onto at least a character or two from the start.  If every name is unfamiliar or difficult, readers may well give up on your story.
  • If you've made up a name, did you check to see if you're saying something lewd or unintentionally funny in another language?
  • Names ending in S.  Possessives are tough with names ending in S.  Moses's or Moses'?  And how is it pronounced?  These are also tough to edit consistently.  It's not that you have to avoid names ending in S, but carry an awareness about them.
  • Do your names all sound alike?  Unless this is a plot device, vary names to omit similarities.  Jan, Jen, and Jim could be highly confusing.  Vary the start letters and the number of syllables per name, as well.
  • Make lists of your names to look for odd or familiar combinations, such as, Manny, Moe, and Jack (of Pep Boys fame) or Larry, Curly, and Moe (three of the Stooges).
  • Use names peculiar to your story.  People will remember your story better if your characters have their own names, not those you've borrowed from others.  Another Scarlett or Rhett?  Not likely, though it has been tried.
  • Don't be afraid to change a character's name if it no longer fits the direction or tone of the story.
  • Does your character have a complete name?  Do you know it?  Do you know the full names of all your characters?  Even if you never reveal full names, knowing them will give you insight into your characters.
  • Are you consistent with name and nickname usage?  Is Max called Max, Mr. Oswald, Maximillian, Daddy, Mr. O, Mo, and sir?  Do you need all the different names for one character?  Do you try to use too many of them in one paragraph or scene?  The point is to engage, not confuse, the reader.

    Does Max's wife always call him Honey while his brother calls him Mo and his boss calls him Max?  This can work, but be consistent.  The wife shouldn't call him by 25 different names.  Reveal her character, and his, by the name she uses for him.  If stress brings out the full name from her, you've revealed a facet of their relationship without having to overtly say it.

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Find character names in–

  • Your imagination
  • Phone books
  • Baby name books
  • Family records
  • Company & product names
  • Among your friends (you might need to use a mix of caution and commone sense, here)
  • The obituaries
  • The dictionary

Naming characters can be fun and creative.  Take thought for your characters.  Give each a name worthy of them, worthy of you as their creator.  After all, when your characters live in immortality, you won't want them ashamed of their names.  And you'll want to enjoy their pride and honor, as well.

 

About the Author ()

In my dreams I'm 5'7", a many-times published author with a Pulitzer and an even dozen New York Times' bestsellers, and a Ph.D. who teaches writing at the college level. I'd also have perfected the Chocolate Tree in different varieti

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