Mar 13

Naming Characters

The naming of characters is more than simply assigning names to the population of your story.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that using different letters of the alphabet to name your primary or significant characters is a good practice. Parents (and the writers of children’s books) may find it cute to have all their children with names that start with the same letter, like Collin, Christian, and Caleb. However from a reader’s point of view, you quickly confuse one “C” character with another because, if you’re reading fast, you don’t really take the time to read all the characters names. A much better strategy is to keep an alphabet handy and go to a different letter for your next name.

If you make it a habit to write down interesting, unique or memorable names from cashiers, waiters, flight attendants (anyone with a name badge) or the names of contestants on TV shows, you’ll quickly have a good list of names from which to pick. Using a smart phone app, computer program, or 3 X 5 note cards, you can collect names and have them handy whenever you need them.

One of my practices is to collect both male and female names as well as family names. I also find that saving graduation programs is a good source for names. But then, so are the baby name books you often see at supermarket checkout lines. There are even books specifically designed for writers with nothing more than names broken up by national origins, sex, and language.

Of course, today, it is easy to obtain a list of names from the Internet but don’t forget phone books or the publication information at the front of magazines you’ll find in waiting rooms at doctor’s and dentist’s offices.

There are some writing programs which have name banks – like Movie Magic Screenwriter (not that I’m suggesting you purchase such a program for that feature alone).

No matter where you character names come from, try not to use first and last names as you find them. Mix them us so they truly are characters of your creation and you’ll never have to worry about law suits over character names. You can’t take the name of a real person and just appropriate it. If you do, you open yourself up to law suits if the person learns what you have done and doesn’t like the way their namesake is portrayed in your work. You could even find yourself in court if the depiction of a character with a real person’s name appears favorably in your work. If you make money with someone else’s name, there are people who will want some of that money for themselves because it is their name. So, don’t do it. And be sure to include the standard disclaimer in your work stating that “…any resemblance between characters and events in your story and real people and events are purely coincidental.”

Once you’ve named a character, it’s a good practice to be consistent in the name you use for that character throughout your story. You may give a person both a first and last name, but referring to them by their first name and by their last name. It can get confusing.

One of the problems with reading Russian novels is that a person’s name changes depending on who is addressing them. I was finally able to get through War and Peace when I came across a version in which the editor had gone through the massive work and kept the character’s names consistent.

I understand that people have pet names for children and lovers, even nicknames for friends and enemies. But you as a writer must keep your reader in mind so that while a different name might come up in dialogue, the standard character name will quickly appear so the reader knows for sure who this character is.

Still one more consideration is to keep the name appropriate for the character. This can mean correct to the period of history in which your story is set, but also somehow fitting or ironic for the character. If someone is called “Tiny,” for example, we would generally expect this to be a tongue in cheek name for someone very large. This is still appropriate as would a name like “Angelica” be right for a sweet and loving person. What you don’t want is to name a character that is too on-the-nose like Billy the Brute or Big Nose Kate. These names might be applied to the character by everyone who is referring to the character behind his/her back but not to his or her face.

In the case of naming animals and objects for a children’s story, it is almost too trite to name a character by what he/she is; Griselda Guitar or Henry Hamster. It would be more creative to name the guitar Sandra Strum and a hamster Roland Roundcage – assuming you still want to go with the alliteration of having both first and last names begin with the same letter, a popular kiddy-lit convention.

Even a gunfighter with a last name like Holster, or Halfcock, or Rimfire would be a little too much for an adult Western in these days. While it does happen that people sometimes have names related to their profession, it’s rare and is hardly serious. (Years ago I remember a story in the student newspaper at The University of Texas at Austin in which a couple of the campus police officers were actually named Colt, Gunn, and Cannon. It was an interesting story because it was so odd. But while these are real names and there have been TV series called “Peter Gunn,” “Cannon,” and even “Magnum P.I.” today it would be downright laughable.)

Consider small play on word name like “Marcus Welby, M.D.” (well-be). These can be clever if they don’t hit you over the head with cuteness of the character’s name.

A famous Charles Dickens character was named Miss Steel was noted as being a very hard and cold person. She wore brass buttons all the way up her dress to her stiff, straight neck and her baggage was described as being copper surrounded with brass straps and having metal hinges fastened with iron locks.

By contrast it’s interesting to remember that when Ian Fleming was looking for a name for his super cool spy, he decided on the blandest name he could find. James Bond was the author of a book on birds Fleming happened to have on his coffee table and he picked that name. Today the name James Bond means calm and cool under fire, a lady’s man who can really take care of himself.

Whatever strategy you use for naming your characters, it becomes one of the most important decisions you make as a writer. Don’t just blow it off and use the first names you come across.


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