One of the key elements to a work of fiction is character 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, workhorse 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 unbelievable?
· 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 rather than push
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.
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 commonsense, 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. Give
them names that you, and they, can wear proudly. †
© 2007 E. A. Hill