Monday, October 30, 2017

Taking Care in Naming Characters

I spend a lot of time naming characters -- but perhaps not quite enough. I was recently writing a scene in a new book (Demise of a Devious Suspect), and had four characters meeting in a diner. One was the protagonist, Melanie. The others were Sandi, Syl, and Stooper. And the food server was Shirley.

Gee, four people whose names begin with S. It's not a crime, but it's not helpful for readers. In my (weak) defense, I named them at separate points in the series, and this is the first time they've all been in one room. But how did I not see this?

Though I'm not sure another writer should take advice from an author who puts four S named characters in one scene, here are some things I consider in naming characters.
  • Does the name fit with the client's nationality or residence? For example, Lars could be a name to use in Minnesota (where many people descend from Swedes) but it might sound out of place in Mississippi.
  • Is the name so hard to pronounce that readers will stumble over it each time they come across it? Conversely, you could do that deliberately, so a character can be irritated that people don't say his/her name correctly.
  • Similar names can be confusing. Rob and Bob should generally not be in scenes together. Nor should Mary and May.
  • Are you considering a name that also happens to be that of a close relative or friend? You might not think of your friend as your write, but they may wonder why you used their name -- especially if the character is a bad guy.
  • Does the name have such historical significance that your reader will envision that person instead of your character? Personally, I wouldn't name anyone Margaret Thatcher, Hank Aaron, or Benjamin Franklin.
There are no hard and fast rules in creating character names. Do avoid using the same first letter for four people who will sit at a table together.
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  1. Great advice, Elaine. I read one author's method (sorry, can't remember who to credit) who kept an alphabetical spreadsheet and did not use the same letter for first and last names more than once. And I had considered using the name Leigh Harvey for a female character, until it dawned on me . . . Lee Harvey Oswald? I think not.

  2. You're right. That wouldn't have worked! I really should do a spreadsheet just to keep track of the ones I've used.

  3. This is a great article about naming characters. I especially like that first point about Lars living in Mississippi.