The importance of your character names
I’m trying to un-busy myself enough to get back on schedule of posting weekly on Mondays instead skipping a week here and there or posting on Tuesday. We’ll see how that goes.
In the past I’ve talked about the importance of making your characters interesting because stories don’t exist in a vacuum. Stories happen to characters. Therefore, your characters should be the heart of the story. On the blog you can check out my previous posts on the subject in the CHARACTERS category.
One thing I haven’t talked much about is character names. Scott and I have previously given some advice on what not to do in terms of character names.
One thing to be careful of is similar-sounding names because those can confuse readers. Granted, sometimes it works well, such as the twins’ rhyming names in The Mosaic: Chloe and Zoe.
Rhyming names isn’t a bad thing, and it’s not uncommon to find such in fiction. What can confuse a reader, though, is using names that begin with the same letter AND rhyme or nearly rhyme: Rhyming names also work better when the last part of the names are similar and the first letters are different. “Ted & Tex” or “Bart & Brett” are more likely to confuse a reader than Ted & Fred.
An author friend used Kori & Kali (and I don’t recall if they were twins or just siblings). There is nothing inherently wrong with a pair of names like that as long if they’re main or major characters and the writer ensures that the reader has no trouble distinguishing them.
Even then, Kori & Kali aren’t bad as a pair of fantasy names. But names like Firz & Forz are certain to cause issues when they appear among a host of other unfamiliar types of names. Again, I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t use such names, only that you tread carefully and make the two characters stand out separately and sufficiently so the reader doesn’t confuse them.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter in the story if the reader confuses the two characters. If they’re simply twins who act as one unit and the reader doesn’t need to distinguish them, such having them be a fighting team, then you might be okay.
You, the writer, must always remember that you know all the details of these similar-sounding characters, but the reader only knows what you share and doesn’t have the luxury of being inside your head.
Therefore, be careful when using similar-sounding character names, and make sure that doing so serves a good purpose that the reader will understand in the story.
Let’s shift gears a bit. What inspired this post was a recent article in The Guardian newspaper on character names in general. Before I share that link, let’s say that someone asked you to name some memorable characters in fiction. Why are those characters memorable? Which ones do you know from personal reading experience, and which ones do you know only from hearing others mention them?
Your personal experience choices may depend on whether you’re a reader of classic literature, modern literature, or a fan of movies. Even if you’ve never read the novel or seen the movie Gone with the Wind, you’ll probably be familiar with the names Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Some names (like Scrooge) have become dictionary words for a person with traits like the character. And even though Albert Einstein isn’t a fictional character, his name is synonymous with genius. How often have we heard person called “an Einstein” or heard “he’s certainly no Einstein” said about a person?
“Sherlock Holmes” is probably the first name that comes to mind when asked to name a famous fictional detective, but can you name other great fictional detectives? Try a Google search. If you’re a fan of James Patterson’s novels, “Alex Cross” will come to mind. I found one list of twelve greatest fictional detectives who aren’t Sherlock Holmes. How many can you think of without looking them up? (I’ll leave you to do the Internet search yourself.)
When we think of spies, the name James Bond is probably the first one that gets mentioned. You might also think of Robert Ludlum’s “Jason Bourne” and Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” as also being famous in several books and the movies made from them.
For memorable names of characters, let’s not forget about Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird and Luke Skywalker (among others) in Star Wars.
Now here’s the article from The Guardian:
Pay close attention to the names of these memorable characters. In some cases, the names stand out because they’re unusual, but in other cases, the names are commonplace.
Here’s a link to a rather long list of CHARLES DICKENS’ CHARACTERS. Regardless of whether you’ve read much Dickens, you may recognize some of the names. Notice that many stand out by being unusual, and in many cases the names describe the nature of the character. At least one Dickens character in David Copperfield was used for the name of a rock music band: Uriah Heep.
Lest you think that writers don’t use these types of names today, consider the characters in The Hunger Games. While I have not read the books or seen the movies (not my story preference), I do know the main character’s name, Katniss. I did find it interesting in the Wikipedia article about her regarding the origin of her last name: KATNISS EVERDEEN
If you aren’t familiar with the novels, you might want to look up the character names on Wikipedia. They are certainly anything but common names. What about novels you’ve read over the years? Can think of characters whose names reflect their description or personality?
Consider the main characters in the original Star Trek series: James T. Kirk, Leonard McCoy, Scotty (Montgomery Scott), Spock, Uhura, Chekov (Pavel Chekov), Sulu (whose first name I don’t recall ever hearing, but it’s Hikaru), Nurse Chapel. Some of these names are unique enough to be memorable, but others don’t stand out. Certainly James Kirk could not be considered an unusual name in any way, although his middle name, Tiberius, did add an interesting touch. Had the series not become so popular, the name of James Kirk would not have risen to the status it has today.
There’s a lesson in this: Choosing character names is IMPORTANT! No writer should be so naive as to think that his or her novel will become so well entrenched in literature that a commonplace character name will rise to the level of a James T. Kirk. At the same time, you should never assume that your novel won’t ever be famous. J. K. Rowling had no clue that her novels would rise to fame and that her characters would become household words.
Names that are unusual will stand out. However, you should use a bit of common sense. If you go too far with your character names and craft several names that are too hard to pronounce, (say in a sci-fi or fantasy novel), then such names will all blur together for the reader. You might as well have written the names in a foreign language. Distinctive names are good, but it is possible to overdo them.
I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned it on this blog, but back in the mid-2000s, before the Kindle and before ebooks hit it big, there were a few ereaders around, and a few ebooks were being published by small publishers. I didn’t own an ereader, but you could purchase most ebooks in pdf format if you didn’t own an ereader. One ebook caught my attention because it had a very interesting sci-fi plot premise. I purchased it.
While the concept was really cool, aside from the quality of the writing being less than stellar, the story (a novella actually) had a HUGE problem with the character names. They were not complicated names; quite the opposite. Almost all of the character names were very common ones, like Bill, John, James, Mary. The characters all blurred together because the names were not memorable (actually the characters were rather two-dimensional as well), and I had a hard time trying to keep the characters straight. I sincerely believe that this novella could have been much better had the author taken more time to make the characters distinct and distinctive.
That thought leaves me to wonder whether giving more thought to one’s character names would inspire an author to make the characters themselves more memorable and more dynamic, thus improving the entire story. Have you read any stories where the writing was superb, and perhaps the story was good, but the characters were mundane or uninteresting?
Paying close attention to your characters’ names is the first step in making your characters stand out. If you invest yourself in your characters, give thought to their names, make them interesting, then you will care about your characters. And so will your readers.
I’ll leave you with this interesting tidbit about the fictional detective Hercule Poirot:
HOW AGATHA CHRISTIE GREW TO DISLIKE HERCULE POIROT
It’s rather telling when an author creates a character that can evoke such strong feelings in the author.