Name That Character!

by Anne Marble

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A character’s name is a basic part of that character, but it can sometimes be hard to come by just the right name. These tips might make that passage a little easier.

Warning! Names Stick to Your Brain! If you can’t think of a name right away, you might decide to try out a temporary name on a character. Or you might give your character a name and only later realize that it’s not very good. Still, it’s only a first draft, what harm could it do? Be careful! I once created a villain named Lord Nohan. By the time I realized that name would send readers into peals of laughter, the name was fixed in my brain. I changed it to Lord Merik, but it took months before I felt comfortable with the new name.

Ten Tips on Choosing Names

Let the Names Reflect the Characters

Give characters names that tell you something about them. Is your hero an alpha hero and a warrior? Then give him a name that alerts readers to his personality. Is your heroine an artist? Find a name that projects a creative personality. In my romantic suspense novel, I had a great time finding names that suited the characters. For example, Sebastian Gregoire, a passionate artist; Constance Wynter, cold, wealthy woman; and Laurel Walker, the down-to-earth heroine.

Make Sure the Name Doesn’t Belong to Someone Famous

Sometimes, when you hit the right name, it will feel just right, as if it had been on the tip of your tongue, as if you had known your character’s name all along and just had to remember it. Unfortunately, that same feeling can also come from the familiarity of using the name of a celebrity. For example, Warren Zevon sounds like a great name for a villain. Whoops, he’s the guy who did “Werewolves of London.” So how do you avoid this? Enter potential names into a web search engine, such as Google, to make sure they don’t belong to someone famous.

This doesn’t mean that you have to come up with a name that no one has. That is probably impossible, especially when you’re writing contemporary novels. However, avoid inadvertently naming your heroine “Margaret Mead,” or people will expect her to go to Samoa.

Avoid Names That End in S

This tip sounds trivial, but it can save you a lot of trouble later. If you give a character a name that ends in the letter S, you will have an awkward time of it when you write the possessive form of that name. One of my first drafts included a character named Demas. That name was history once I started the second draft because I was sick of pausing every time I wrote the possessive form of his name. Demas’ didn’t look right, and Demas’s looked even worse. This character had a run of bad luck in the naming department, however, as I eventually renamed him Uring.

Use Names That Fit the Period

If you’re writing a historical or Regency romance, do some research on names common to the era. Read primary sources from that era to find out, for example, if the name you picked for your heroine was actually used exclusively for males at that time. Also, if you’re creating characters with a particular ethnic background, do research to find authentic names from that ethnic group. I once started to read a romance about the Norman Invasion and nearly dropped it when I found out that the hero, one of the Normans, was named… Brian?! I quickly realized this was an author who did not grasp the concept of Norman invaders. I’m sure many other readers had the same reaction. Perhaps this was why it was in the bargain bin.

Also, no matter how good your sources are, don’t grab the first name you see. Remember that not every Hispanic man is named Raoul or Juan, nor was every Anglo-Saxon or Viking man named Wulf.

On the other hand, remember that people from this era will be reading your book. Though you must pick authentic names, those names should be something modern day readers can relate to. Sure, Egbert was once a popular Anglo-Saxon name meaning “bright spear” — but modern readers will look at that name and think that your warrior hero sounds like an accountant.

Avoid the Trends

There are already a lot of heroes named Rafe, Damon, Demon, Devil, and so forth, just as there are many heroines names Jayne, Alex, Angela, Samantha… Well, you get the picture. Readers are already getting sick of the throngs of characters with the same names. Try to find something new.

Besides, were there really that many rakes cavorting about with names like Demon and Devil? There’s nothing wrong with giving your heroes cool nicknames, but go beyond the usual. Readers will be grateful that they don’t have to read about yet another Devil. There are lots of strong names and nicknames out there that aren’t overused. Be sure to read a lot of books (and read the back covers of the ones you don’t have time to read) to make sure you’re not using an overused name.

Avoid Overly Weird Names and Cute Spellings

Many romance writers are so intent on giving characters unusual names that they end up going to the extremes. Romance novels are littered with character names that are so unusual that they practically “boing” off the page every time you read them. However, you don’t want character names that boing of the page, you want names that readers will accept.

Another trend in romance character names is cute spellings of ordinary names. If you want to use an ordinary name, then go ahead and use it. Many readers will find it refreshing to come across a Chris instead of a Crys or Cryssa.

Avoid Names That Sound the Same

Have you ever comes across a book where one character was named Jack, another Jane, yet another Josephine, and so forth? Enough already! It can get confusing, no matter how distinctly those characters are drawn. This pitfall isn’t as easy to avoid as you might think, however. Readers can be just as distracted by characters with names that sound alike even if they don’t start with the same letter — such as Craig and Greg.

Avoid Androgynous Names

This isn’t a major no-no, but it can be a bit of a distraction to readers. If your heroine is named Pat or Sam, it can be easy for a reader to pick up the book and them find herself wondering why Sam is complaining about PMS before remembering “Oh, right, that’s the heroine. Also, don’t forget that readers will be reading the back cover copy before they read the actual novel. I’ve come across back cover copy that took a couple of passes to “translate” because I couldn’t tell which character was the hero and which was the heroine. In some cases, I’ve found myself blinking when the back cover told me that someone named Pat was wearing high heels!

Don’t Get Hung Up on the Meanings

Knowing what a name means is great. However, never let it get in the way of picking a good name. When I first started writing novels, I used to look up the meanings of names before picking names. However, more often than not, I ended up with terrible names.

Some resources on naming characters do suggest doing this because it can give your name a sort of “subliminal message.” This sounds like a good idea at first. In some cases, it is, if you can get across a meaning without being either obvious or too obscure. (For example, J. K. Rowlings does this well in the “Harry Potter” books, with names just as Sirius Black and Remus Lupin.) But keep in mind that most people don’t know the meanings of names, especially very old names.

Surname Tips

Most of the guidelines that apply to first names apply to last names as well, but there are some special tips that you can apply to last names. There are also guidelines that help you combine the right first name with the right last name.

  • Don’t end the first name with the same sound as the last name. (Try pronouncing Johnson Naismith, and you’ll see what I mean.)
  • Try combining common first names with unusual last names, or unusual first names with common last names.
  • Use genealogy sources to look up possible surnames.
  • Unless you’re writing a futuristic or fantasy romance, avoid making up surnames — made-up surnames often stick out like sure thumbs. So speaks the person who ended up with characters with the last names of Irting, Cranly, and Tilden.

Special Tips for Writers of Fantasy and Futuristic Romances

Creating names for fantasy and futuristics romances has its own pitfalls — and its own rewards. Writers have more freedom when creating names for these subgenres, but with more freedom comes the potential for mistakes that are unique to this type of story.

Pronounce the Name to Make Sure It Isn’t Horrid

I confess. While I love the freedom of creating names in fantasy and SF settings, I have also created some putrid character names — from Jag-Ok to Namdeii (which I never did figure out how to pronounce). One of the worst has to be Uring. At first glance, it looked all right on the page, so I started using it. Then I realized that it could be misread in a couple of ways, one quite embarrassing. I finally renamed the character Goren, but I will probably always think of him as Uring because I had stuck with that name for so long.

Let the Names Reflect Your World

Names should be affected by your worldbuilding. If the world you have created for your story is a harsh land dominated by a warrior culture, the names will reflect that — just as many Anglo-Saxon names included words relating to concepts such as “strong,” “spear,” “warrior,” and so forth. On the other hand, if your characters live in a pastoral world, they are more likely to have names that reflect their closeness to nature. Depending on your society, characters could be named after ancestors, gods, animals, places, or even their occupations. Similarly, if your world is supposed to be separate from earth, avoid names that are too closely associated with earth. If you can find existing names that are exotic enough so that people won’t recognize, then that’s fine. I won’t tell where you got them.

Characters can also have nicknames — let those reflect the world they live in as well. Let’s say you’re writing a futuristic. What should your hero’s nickname be? That depends on what he does. A nickname like Flash or Blaster tells you one thing about a character, a nickname like Gadget or Gizmo describes a different character entirely.

Avoid the Ap’ostrph’e of D’oom

Some writers of fantasy and science fiction use apostrophes to make names look exotic. If this is part of your worldbuilding, that’s fine. Anne McCaffrey uses apostrophes to create honorifics from the names of characters in her Pern books, and they have meaning in that setting. It worked in that setting — there was even a part where a character was at a loss because it was so hard to create an honorific from the name Jaxom. However, most writers who use apostrophes can’t carry it off as well as Anne McCaffrey. For example, many people are annoyed by the overuse of apostrophes in James Clemens’ fantasy series, starting with “Wit’ch Fire.” Yes, you saw that right, wit’ch. You can see why readers get annoyed with t’oo m’any ap’ostrph’es.

Yryyyreat, Meet Qoologa

One of the great parts about writing fantasy and futuristic romances is the chance to make up exotic names. You don’t have to stick to a simple Hank Stone or Chrissie Hensen, you can have heroes and heroines with names exciting, even enchanting, names. However, it’s easy to get carried away and create names that no one, including yourself, can pronounce. If your name makes readers stop and struggle every time they see it, then consider other possibilities: change the name; include a pronunciation guide; give the character a nickname.

Welcome to the Land of Clout!

If you’re writing fantasy or futuristic romances, you have another obstacle similar to that of naming a character after a celebrity. While it’s fun thinking of exotic names, it’s very easy to accidentally come up with proper names that turn out to be real words. When you come up with those cool words, think them over, read them out loud, and look them up in a dictionary. If you do this, then you won’t do as I did in my first fantasy story, when I had the hero living in the land of Clout. Boy did I feel silly when I later remembered it was a real word.

Find Out More…

In the Name of Love… Finding the Right Names for Your Characters, by Desmond Lindo
The Name Game, by John Robert Marlow
A Rose by Any Other Name… by Devyani Borade
What’s In a Name? An Interview with Six Fantasy Authors by Moira Allen’s In a Name? by Victoria Grossack Links: Character Naming Resources

Copyright © 2003 Anne Marble

This article may not be reprinted without the author’s written permission.

Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer’s Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her “spare time,” she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it’s a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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