Nov 19 2008

7 Common Naming Mistakes

Published by at 7:00 am under Writing Articles

1. Naming a character for reasons your readers can’t appreciate is ineffective. I’ve read writing guides (plural) that 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?)

2. Don’t pick a name to pay homage to one of your favorite authors. Let’s say I name my superhero Clark or my dragon Kazul.  At best, it’s 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’ve 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.

3. “Exotic” names like Qwerty’uiop are 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.

4.  Readers will probably stumble over names that are too long or complicated. Generally, I recommend limiting character names to three syllables.  Also, please do not use apostrophes or hyphens in names.  Punctuated names are typically quite hard to pronounce.

5. Be careful with foreign names. Keep in mind that your readers probably don’t speak Tagalog, Farsi, French, etc.  An effective foreign name, like Temeraire, will suggest 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 “Huitzilapoche” will bewilder your readers. Is Huit pronounced like Hewitt or Hwit? Is poche one syllable or two?

6. Referring to characters by more than one name tends to confuse readers, so do it as sparingly as possible. For example, if a character is Candace at the beginning, readers may feel confused when her conversant addresses a line to Mrs. Smith.  Occasionally, using different names is necessary, but try to keep it as intuitive as possible.  For example, Candace’s three-year-old will call her something like Mommy rather than Candace. That won’t confuse anyone.

7. Don’t use surnames if you can avoid them. If you have to use a surname, avoid it as long as possible.  Sometimes your characters need surnames, but introducing them in the beginning tends to create flurries of proper nouns.  “Readers hate unnecessary proper nouns,” Cadet Davis said to Jacob Mallow and B. Mac.

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “7 Common Naming Mistakes”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 04 Dec 2008 at 3:49 pm

    I noticed that all the characters in FIGHT – with the exception of Klemente – have an I in their names. I thought “Okay, this is a bit Organization XIII, isn’t it?” All members of Organization XIII in Kingdom Hearts 2 have an X in their names.


    So Aida is being renamed Atalya. I think it’s a nicer name, anyway.

  2. Bretton 04 Dec 2008 at 4:34 pm

    Klemente has no “i” in it. But If all FIGHT members had a common letter, it could be a cool coincidence.

  3. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 04 Dec 2008 at 5:14 pm

    Whoops, I forgot Kamari! She’s so important that she’s introduced well before the others! But she has an I in her name too.

  4. alxrgrson 23 Jun 2010 at 7:13 am

    My character uses some pseudonyms and I was wondering if this was a good idea:

    My character (Ryan) is introduced travelling the world and is captured by government operatives who refer to him as Ryan. Flashbacks of his past tell a story of a powerful man who is a secret revolutionary; his son is a social inept, afraid young bot who befriends a strong, mysterious bully (who looks identical to the older Ryan), but neither are named (just nicknames). After about a fifth of the way into the story, the flashbacks will stop, but they end revealing that the reader has been lead to believe that the mysterious boy is a young Ryan, whereas it is the opposite: the afraid, sickly son of a revolutionary is in fact the young Ryan who will come-of-age and become a strong, influential man.

    Is this too confusing? Any advice?

  5. Loysquaredon 05 Aug 2010 at 11:08 pm

    During my college years, I had a [very bright] professor who was obsessed with character’s names. She [somehow] traced them back to some ancient culture or hidden meaning, and I got stuck with that. As from my personal overall view, that’s everywhere! Even “Inception” has a character who’s name is extracted from a mythological background. Frankly, I find it amusing when authors/directors give us some clue just for the fun of it 🙂

  6. JVKJRon 24 Jan 2013 at 6:12 pm

    Someone tell me how they would pronounce this: Hwenzanra. Just type how you’d pronounce it if you read it, because it seems easy to pronounce to me, but I need to know if others may have a hard time with it.

  7. B. McKenzieon 24 Jan 2013 at 8:09 pm

    I don’t think it matters much whether the readers’ pronunciation lines up with yours–it just matters that the readers not feel like they’re stumbling over it. It helps if they can break the name down into sounds that are relatively familiar, perhaps looking unusual if the character’s background calls for something exotic (e.g. I named one protagonist Gaine–it’s exotic but not disorientingly so).

    Personally, I struggled with Hwenzanra–the ‘Hw’ sound is very rare in English, ‘nz’ looks strange, and an-ra could flow together more smoothly. I’m reasonably sure that I’d pronounce it in the same way you would*, but I’d still probably trip over that name as I was reading.

    *Although ‘zan’ is a bit of a mystery — it might rhyme with ‘can’ or ‘con.’

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply