What’s in a name?

From Scott:

Naming your characters may seem like a mundane task. I’ve read many stories where it appeared that the author considered the naming process to be an extraneous step, little more than an annoying roadblock to the true task of writing the book. But an improperly named character, especially a major character, can pull a reader out of the story and make your book a more difficult read.

The techniques for naming characters vary, not just from writer to writer but across the various genres, as well. The techniques I’ll describe here are guidelines I’ve developed over the course of several novels. I struggled early, but I’ve learned, and I hope to help other writers avoid the mistakes I made.

Before we go into what you should do, let’s cover a little of what you shouldn’t. One rule that I consider inviolate is giving characters similar names. It would cause serious confusion to name one character “Tony,” and name another character “Toby.” This is relatively easy to avoid with contemporary names. However, when making names up out of your imagination, it can be easy to fall into the rut of starting characters’ names with the same first few letters. You might get away with this once or twice, but any more than that and you may cause confusion. A great way to avoid this pitfall would be to keep an alphabetical list of all characters. When you add a new name, check it against the list. J.R.R. Tolkien, the father of the fantasy genre, demonstrated this rule. When I was a kid, I read Lord Of The Rings for the first time and became really confused trying to keep Saruman and Sauron separate.

Another problem will crop up in fantasy and science fiction novels. The names of non-human characters need to sound suitably alien. Having a character from Alpha Centauri with the name of “Bob” would probably stretch the reader’s patience, unless it’s intended as some tongue-in-cheek humor. By the same token, I made a mistake in the opposite direction with The Killing Frost. I had several human characters, but none of them had human-sounding names. However, there can be exceptions to this rule, also. My forthcoming novel, 14 Days ‘Til Dawn, is set in the future with human characters. However, their ancestors left earth behind and cast aside all connections to earth, including their names. So as long as there’s a reason for what you do, it’s probably okay.

A third rule to keep in mind is the ease of pronunciation. I’ve read many a book with unpronounceable names. Every time the names appear in the text, it pulls the reader out of the story. Rather than visualize the story, the reader must pause and try to decipher the cryptic name. With a fantasy name like “Polan,” the reader will subconsciously decide on a pronunciation and move on. But with a name like “Mxyhiln,” the reader will pause every time the name pops up.

Now, we’ll look at what you should do. Let’s start with a relatively easy set of genres. Contemporary novels, whether written as thrillers, romance, mystery, or what have you, make for a simple naming process. Martyr’s Inferno, my thriller novel, is set in modern-day Illinois. I named many of the characters through the simple process of looking in a phone book. I turned to one page and randomly picked a last name, then turned to another and chose a first name.

Sometimes, however, you may receive inspiration from another area. My protagonist, Jim Hunter, is such a case. He originally had a different last name (it eludes me now, but that’s not important). I switched to “Hunter” because I wanted a name that sounded sharp when used as part of a series. I imagined any other novel after Martyr’s Inferno will have the subtitle “A Hunter Novel.” If I had used a more common name, like “Smith,” it would not have had the same ring to it . . . “A Smith Novel?” Nah.

I chose Hunter’s first name before I had written a single word. He is named in honor of my friend, Jim Mulay, an officer from my police department who was killed in the line of duty by a drunk driver. I wanted to honor Jim’s memory, hence the name. So both methods, random and deliberate, will work if done properly.

One other thing to consider with contemporary names is the nationality of the character. Your book might be set in Idaho, but if your character was born in Paris, “Don” might be a less appropriate name than “Pierre” or “Jean-Claude.” Look at the character’s demographics and choose the name accordingly.

In science fiction and fantasy, if I have a variety of races, I try to make the names within each race sound as though they have a common root. The best way I’ve found to do this is through the use of a book that lists thousands of names, by origin. The book I use contains a separate section for German, Russian, Norse, Greek, Roman, and so on. I’ll choose a different ethnic background for each given race, and derive my names from the names in that section of the book. I take a name, change a few letters, and claim the name as my own.

Put some thought into your names. It takes a lot more time than just smacking a few random keys on your keyboard, but in the end your book will be better for it. Avoid the pitfalls listed above, follow the basic guidelines, and your characters’ names will shine.


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