What are the most important things to remember when naming your characters?
Recently, io9 talked about character names that should be banned, and and it got me thinking about naming characters in general. I don’t necessarily agree that you should never use the name Katherine (as the author suggests, among other things), but I do think that there are important things that need to be taken into consideration so as not to distract the reader from the story. Whenever the reader gets pulled out of the story by something jarring (like an ill-fitting character name), they are more likely to put that book down. And the reader putting your book down is bad, right? I thought so, too.
Every writer has their own opinion about naming characters in their stories, but I personally subscribe to the screenwriter method. This method is pretty clearly outlined in William M. Akers’ Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 ways to make it great (crazy title, awesome book – I highly recommend it for anyone writing any type of fiction). One of the main tenets of this method is trying your best to not give characters names that start with the same letter or rhyme. This can be easily accomplished by listing the letters A to Z and not using more than one name for each letter (and if you have more than 26 main characters, that’s a whole different issue).
You can also go a little further and give characters names that mean something, that say something about their character. Dickens and Shakespeare were big on this. In more recent years, JK Rowling gave quite a few of her Harry Potter characters Latinate names that hinted something (for example, Dumbledore comes from the Latin word for “bumblebee”), and many of her characters were named after stars/characters from mythology (Sirius, Bellatrix, Regulus, Merope, etc.). Frequently her nods at mythology related directly to the character, as in the case of Remus Lupin being a werewolf (Remus, in mythology, was one of the twins who founded Rome and was raised by a wolf). You’ve got to be careful with this, though, or you might fall into accidental parody territory, which would generally be bad times.
One thing that really bugs me is popular names that are spelled in crazy irritating ways, like Kaiyleigh, Ashli, Jaydenn, Jessikah (aaahhh, I can’t even write any more of these horrible names), unless of course your characters actually live in a trailer park. If you must name your character a popular current name, for goodness sake, please spell it in a way that doesn’t burn your readers’ retinas (Kailey, Ashley, Jaden, Jessica, etc.).
Some science fiction and fantasy books can get away with unusual names, like Game of Thrones or Hunger Games, but even then, it’s helpful to keep the names as pronounceable as possible. In Game of Thrones, we can all pronounce Cersei, Sansa, and Tyrion even though we’ve never seen those names before. In Hunger Games, Katniss, Peeta, and Prim are all names that we can pronounce. Capiche?
What tips and tricks do you use when naming characters? Or do you just use names that “feel right”?