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The Art of Naming Your Characters

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Katniss - Hunger Games - Novel Conclusions - Writing Blog - Christi Gerstle

Katniss via Google Images

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”?

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

21 responses

  1. Very interesting post. Character names are important and they should be distinct. I read a book recently where 3 characters were named Alyssa, Alison and Alice and i kept getting mixed up. So yes, character naming is important. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You are so right about the importance of names. I was pretty stuck with my character’s name–Na’amah, which of course breaks the rule of being easily pronounceable. I probably should have simplified it to Namah, but I choose to go with the Biblical spelling. When I read the name meant “beautiful or pleasant,” I was inspired, and the first lines became: “My name, Na’amah, means beautiful or pleasant. I am not always pleasant, but I am beautiful.” This set the tone and character’s voice for the entire book! So yes, be careful with names!

    • That’s a beautiful name — and a clever way to use the meaning to your advantage. There are so many beautiful biblical names hidden in stories just waiting to be retold in creative ways, especially in the Old Testament.

  3. Well said! I seem to remember one of my favorite writers, A.S. Byatt saying that she got stuck on the scientific name of a bug…and she refined it a bit to create a name for her character. Very cool!

  4. I like to keep my characters’ names simple to pronounce–out loud and in one’s head. Long, cumbersome names can be annoying to the reader. Sometimes I give the names meaning, but only if it makes sense and isn’t too cutesy. And I agree, the author should work hard to make sure two names are not too similar. Can be difficult for the reader to keep straight.

    • Once in a creative writing class in college, I was writing 2 different stories with similar character names — Morgan and Mason. In my haste to turn one of the stories in by the class deadline, I accidentally changed Mason’s name to Morgan halfway through one of the stories. It was pretty embarrassing, to say the least. So even for our own sake, it’s a good idea to keep characters’ names distinct!

  5. Ooh –awesome tips! 🙂 I never thought about making an alphabet list for my character names. I always hate it when I’m reading a book with a lot of characters and the names are too similar…

  6. Sometimes a name just sticks to a character so I can forgive similar sounding names sometimes but if every characters nake starts with an s then that is going too far.

  7. Reblogged this on Mandyevebarnett's Blog and commented:
    Always a thought provoking and informative blog

  8. Pingback: DRM or Do I Really Own My E-Books? « Novel Conclusions

  9. Haha a remember seeing at the back of Eragon an appendix that pronounced all the characters names and I was like…why wasn’t this at the beginning of the book? I just spent days trying to read through names like Murtagh and Islanzadí. What gives? That’s the one book where I literally cannot remember or sound out the pronunciations if my life depended on it. I guess it works because it’s fantasy, but still, you’re not J.R.R. Tolkien.

  10. sometimes I wake up with the name of the character, I’ve sort of dreamed it. But mostly it causes me difficulty, so I pick the one that sort of feels right. GOT I notice takes normal names eg Peter and sticks in an extra letter to make them odd and medieaval – Petyr.

    • I noticed that about Game of Thrones, too, and thought it was really well played on George RR Martin’s part. The names are generally names we can pronounce, yet they still have a medieval ring to them.

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