Oct 15 2007
This article will cover how to name characters effectively and how to avoid the most common naming problems.
Character names serve several important roles, like differentiating characters and evoking an emotional response from readers.
Readers use names to tell characters apart, obviously. Authors sometimes complicate this by using the same letter to start character names, using similar-looking or similar-sounding names. We will keep John and Hideyuki apart in our minds, but maybe not Clinton and Cliff (or Kevin).
As a rule of thumb, once you have used a given letter to start a character’s name, you can’t use it again. If your work is long enough that you name 15+ characters, then you can start sharing the letters of minor characters who appear in completely different parts of the book. Also, try to mix up the number of syllables in your character names.
Names also serve to define characters. A character’s name should establish or at least suggest a defining trait of the character. If you’re writing a superhero story, you may be able to get away with a wacky name like Captain Carnage or Devil Dog, like Superhero Nation does.
Obviously, most writers have to be more subtle than that. “Neville Longbottom” is a great example of a name that suggests a trait without being too ridiculous. However, giving effeminate and insufferable guys names like Percy is annoying and over-done. It’s like his parents knew he was gonna be a wuss!
Finally, names evoke an emotional response from readers. If your character is a hero, an excellent name will make readers feel he is heroic. This is usually subconscious and relies on word sounds. For example, if you want to associate a character with energy and activity, you’d want to use a firm and short name. Typically, protagonists are active go-getters– otherwise the story would be pretty boring, right?– so they have firm, short names.
When you name main characters, you should also consider whether reading the name 25-75 times an hour will annoy readers. Because of the cold ‘br’ sound, Brian will probably grate readers more than Harry or Gary. Another consideration is the syllable count. Single-syllable names are fine, but not all are created equal. If you compare Joan to Jane and Joe to John, Joan and Joe are usually stronger because they end more pleasantly.
Some other elements of sound you can consider:
- K, V, X and H are harsh. Korvax and Havoc are probably not nice people. (On the other hand, if Korvax is a pleasant newscaster, that could be hilarious).
- B, J, M, F and R are examples of letters that sound firm without being menacing. Frank, B. Mac, Brad, etc.
- L, U, S and O are smooth, soft and sometimes sensual. (Did you like the alliteration?)
Characters immerse your readers in your world. Names help make the audience feel like they’re on your page, that they get what’s going on. For example, we aren’t meant to understand Judge Dredd and The Punisher as even-headed men of justice. If those guys were named John or Mike, we might feel confused and disorientated.
Alternatively, the use of several names for a character can indicate authorial ambiguity to the reader. For example, my Agent Black is also known as the Manhattan Mangler. If I gave you only one of those, you would probably reach a different conclusion about how just, unique and proper he is. Readers would also visualize a different character. The Manhattan Mangler is probably a loose cannon with tattoos, long hair, leather jackets, etc. Agent Black is more kempt, septic and fits more with what we imagine a federal agent should be like. I hope that readers subconsciously associate respectability with conformity.
Common Naming Mistakes
- Using “exotic” names like Xsdajk’Uiopds is completely unacceptable. Generally speaking, extraterrestrials and orcs won’t have names like Dave, but that’s no excuse for randomly stringing together letters. A better approach is stringing together familiar sounds to make new names. For example, your readers are comfortable with Brad and Darian, right? Together, they make Bradarian. If that isn’t alien enough, you could add a prefix or cut out letters to make Bradar, for example. Tim and Milly could make Imilly or Intimilly.
- Names that are too long irritate readers. Generally, I’d recommend limiting a character’s name to three syllables. Maybe five if you often use a tag, like Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Fantastic.
- Naming a character for reasons your readers can’t appreciate is ineffective. I’ve seen writing guides (plural) suggest that you name characters based on the literal meaning of the names. For example, “Sophia means wisdom in Greek, so name a wise character Sophia!” That advice is awful. Your readers have no clue that Luke means high-born in some language they’ve never heard of. There are drastically better ways to show that Luke is noble, like giving him a corny last name (Skywalker, anyone?)
- Naming a character in an attempt to pay homage to a favorite author is a lose-lose proposition. Let’s say I name my superhero Clark or my dragon Kazul. At best, the name is a lame in-joke. But these scenarios are far more likely.
- A reader picks up the Superman reference and it distracts him whenever he sees Clark’s name.
- He picks up the Superman reference and he thinks I’m a hack.
- He misses the Superman reference (and I wasted an opportunity to give my superhero a name that’s effective for my story).
- My dragon named Kazul is such a blatant ripoff of copyrighted material that I get sued.
- Foreign names may cause readers to stumble. Keep in mind that your readers probably don’t speak Tagalog or Farsi or French or whatever. A good example of a foreign name is Temeraire. The word nicely suggests a consistent pronunciation (TEM-eh-rare). French people might not pronounce it that way. But that doesn’t matter! Your readers will feel they are pronouncing it correctly, even if they aren’t. In contrast, something like “Huitzilopochtli” will bewilder your readers. Is Huit pronounced like Hewitt or Hwit? Is poch pronounced liked poach or pock?
- Last names lead to overcapitalization. Sometimes your characters need last names, but often they don’t, particularly in the beginning. It’s easy to overwhelm Readers by hurling Capitalized Noun Phrases at them. If you do include a last name, either keep it to one syllable or make it easily readable and memorizable. For example, in the story Barbara Bloodbath, everyone will remember Barbara’s last name.
- Using different names to refer to characters often confuses and disorients readers. This can apply to secret identities or titles. For example, if a character is Mrs. Smith at the beginning, she should be Mrs. Smith as much as possible, unless we can easily understand why someone would call her something else. Her kid will call her Mommy, which is self-explanatory. But if someone addresses a line to “Candace” or “Dr. Smith,” we won’t necessarily know if they’re talking to Mrs. Smith. Even if you mentioned that Candace Smith got a medical degree, readers may have missed or forgotten that.
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