Monday, November 13, 2006

Naming Characters

Sometimes writers spend more time stressing over what to call a character than they did naming their own child. Authors want their character to have a name that will draw the reader as well as identify the character. It has to sound right. Maybe it implies social status, ethnicity, age, some aspect of the character's personality, or maybe his or her occupation.

We all would like to come up with character names that stick in our heads or just seem perfect for the "person": Hawkeye Pierce, Magnum, Rockford, Mike Hammer, Daisy Mae, Scarlett, Hannibal Lecter, Mrs. Maxim de Winter, Atticus Finch, and on and on.

Authors have multiple copies of Baby Naming books. Some have phone books from different cities. Others keep lists of names of friends or names they read or overhear. Others buy books designed to help writers or to explain the origins of names. Two that I have on my shelf are: _All Those Wonderful Names_ by J.N. Hook and _The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook_ by Sherrilyn Kenyon. I also have a big baby naming book.

Some authors choose the protagonist and antagonist names before they ever begin writing, and that name becomes so ingrained with the character that it would be unthinkable to change it. Personally, I have to have something to call my characters before I begin, but I'm not married to the names. I have been known to change them, multiple times. I keep looking for that "perfect" name; that one so right this person could not have been called anything else. Although my characters' names sometimes change during the course of writing the manuscript or during one of the re-writes, I do spend a lot of time upfront trying to find the best name for each character.

A point to remember is to avoid names within the same novel that sound similar (unless you have some underlying reason for doing this). It's even best to make sure two names don't begin with the same letter (lessens the chance the reader will get the two characters confused) or sound (such as Clarissa and Karla). Some names sound "old;" some are new and modern. You can look up statistics for what would have been your character's birth year and find out what were the most popular names given to children in different countries. Also, you can find out what various names mean and decide if that particular trait fits your character--or you can go in the opposite direction and choose, say, for a tall, strapping football hero a name that means "timid and meek."

Keep in mind that all these resource books are nice to have handy, but you don't have to pay to find names. Go to the library, pay attention to movie credits, search the phone book, look in your children's school directory or the church roster, use the Internet, read the lists of political candidates, scan the obituaries in the paper.

Usually, it’s not easy to decide on character names. I know. If you just can't decide, try throwing out possible names to your critique group. Sometimes, it helps to hear how other people "see" your characters.


  1. So glad you mentioned avoiding similar names. It's been one of my biggest complaints. If the plot is racing along, the action comes to a sudden halt if I have to stop and re-read a portion to remember if it's "Peggy" or "Penny" who is in trouble.

  2. I agree Sally. That makes me crazy too. Sometimes I have to write down the names and something about each character to be able to distinguish them. Recently, a book I read had two characters, one named Helen and one called Elaine. That's the same name in different languages. Any other name, I wouldn't have caught it, but since it's mine, I did. I thought perhaps it would end up meaning something -- sort of a hidden clue to the two women. It didn't, but I could see a writer doing something like that.


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