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Don’t Call Me Ishmael—Name that Character

April 29, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 6, 2011

They may come to you fully formed, the characters who fill your novels.

You may know physical description or life history, you may know personality or traits or the beliefs that have molded your characters into the people they are, able to face the events you’re about to drop them into.

Or, you may know little of them, these people who will walk, race, or fumble their way through your stories. You may instead know only a situation or have a theme you want to explore, and have to devise the right characters to exploit that situation or reveal that theme.

However characters come to you—fully formed in an instant or meticulously crafted for the need—those characters will need names. They’ll need names that reflect their personality, history, experiences, hopes, and even the future that they’ll have stepped into by the end of your story.

Their names should fit—fit the character, the story, the genre, the events, the setting, and the era. Character names should reflect the intricacies you intend for the characters and the realities of your characters’ worlds.

When we name children, we do so for a variety of reasons—to honor a family member or friend, to give our children a head start on the life we hope they’ll lead, or maybe simply because we like the name, the sound of it or the combination of letters or that fact that it’s unique.

We don’t know what our children’s lives will hold or if their names will accurately reflect who they become.

But the naming of characters is different. We typically know the character, who she is, what she wants, what she’s already accomplished, and what she wants for her future.

Her name needs to fit what’s already known of her life. And while she might think she doesn’t fit her name, the reader shouldn’t feel that disconnect.

Names can make a character. They shouldn’t detract or distract from that character.

Choose names that fit your characters. If you can’t determine the right name at the start of your manuscript, don’t worry. Call your characters something, then, as the story develops, learn who they are. Discover if your protagonist is a John or a Max or a Montgomery or Earl. Determine whether your lead character goes by his first name or his last or a nickname.

What of your antagonist? Does he get a harsh name or do you write against type and give him a soft name, something reminiscent of a little boy or a scholar? Maybe your antagonist is a scholar and known by his full name, something such as Marcus James Sinclair.

You can always change a name. Remember that Scarlett O’Hara was Pansy while Margaret Mitchell was writing her. While Pansy might have been an appropriate name for some Southern belles, it wasn’t strong enough for the heroine of Gone With the Wind. And even Scarlett wasn’t the character’s full name. Her father often reminded us she was Katie Scarlett O’Hara, which has a wonderful rhythm to it.

The right name can reveal your character in an instant. It can also add flair to your story. Some character names are instantly recognizable:

Holden Caulfield

Atticus Finch

Jay Gatsby

Jo March

Mr. Rochester

Sherlock Holmes

Huckleberry Finn

Jeeves

Rhett Butler

Hester Prynne

They aren’t necessarily common names, though they are now quite familiar. What they’ve become are names that instantly identify a story, an era, a mood.

But names can be common and still used to create notable characters. Think James Bond, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Shirley, Philip Marlowe. There’s nothing unusual about these names, nothing that would make them stand out on a list of names.

Nothing except what they’ve become at their author’s hands.

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Can you give a character any name? Does it matter what you name each character?

You could, of course, name a character anything you want. You want to name a character Rhett, you’re welcome to do it. Yet you have to know that comparisons will be made. And readers may constantly compare your Rhett to Margaret Mitchell’s Rhett, with yours coming out on the negative side of any comparison. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?

Your Rhett may be more handsome, more dashing, and more compelling, but he won’t ever be the first Rhett and all your outstanding writing skills cannot make him so.

Could you name a character Sludge? Yes. Just keep in mind the images and connotations that readers will think of when they first read such a name. Sludge may be perfect for your character. But readers may question your idea of perfection. And if you want them to read your work, you do need to consider their expectations.

Deciding on the right names for your characters is important because of those reader expectations. And because names can be a useful tool to reveal the personality or purpose or goals of your characters.

Your characters’ names can instantly identify them for your readers. John creates a different impression than does Bertie, Johnny a different one than Ezekiel.

Consider Barbie and Jane, Matilda and Ellie, Hepzibah, Sophia, and Winifred. Each strikes the ear in a different way, looks different on the page, brings to mind a different type of woman. Missy and Jenny may make you think of one type of female while Roxy and Gert bring different types of women to mind.

You can use the differences in sounds, in spellings, in languages, and in cultures to steer your story in the direction you want by naming characters in a way that takes advantage of those differences.

Use harsh sounds and letters for one character and soft sounds for a second.

Give protagonist and antagonist names that oppose, so that even their names create conflict and friction.

Make a character work, stretch, to grow into his or her name.

Don’t settle for a character name. Give your character his name, the one he’ll carry into eternity. Or at least into the hearts of readers.

Don’t think to give characters a name so much to stand out, though that can be both appropriate and entertaining. Instead, give them names that fit, that allow them to become one with the story you’re crafting for them. You don’t want a name that will jar the reader each time he comes across it. You do want a name that reflects all that your character is.

You also want readers to be able to differentiate between characters. Give the readers something different in each name so they can instantly know which character they’re dealing with.

Tips For Naming Characters

Make them pronounceable
Don’t put readers off by giving characters, especially the main ones, names no one can pronounce or spell, especially if you also give your place names unusual spellings.

Xlaxnzgin Rptpax is not a name, not unless it’s some new laxative. And if your novel features brothers Xlaxnzgin and Xlegxger, who live in the land of Zegxgne, going to war against Gzelxaxaga, you may struggle to find and keep readers.

Unusual works, confusing doesn’t. Give your characters names that readers can say aloud. Many readers hear words. If they have to fight to pronounce a character’s name, they might not remember you, or Xlaxnzgin, with fondness. 

Choose names with purpose
Don’t accept just any name for your characters. Choose them with purpose and with an eye toward what that name will mean to character, to plot, and to the reader.

Even if the names are made up, keep to a system
This tip is related to the first one. If you choose to make up names, perhaps for an unknown people group or for inhabitants of another planet or those in another era, use consistency in naming. Use letter patterns and word endings based on language rules.

Create word forms based on sex or age or intimacy level or familiarity and stick to that pattern with every name in that language, allowing for differences of rank or in any of the elements just listed.

Be logical within language groups and maintain patterns so readers will be able to infer relationships simply by understanding the patterns in your names.

Make names fit
Names should match the character in terms of strengths or weaknesses–or be a direct challenge to them—and should fit genre and era and gender.

That is, they should fit unless you purposely choose names that don’t fit. But if you do this, the name will ultimately fit because you’ll have crafted events and situations to play up the ill-fitting name.

Realize that sex can be revealed through a name
Many languages have female and male names that differ with only a letter change. Some letters in a name always indicate a male name while others identify a female name. Learn about gender differences revealed by a single letter or a group of letters.

Names ending in a, ie, ina, elle, or ette are typically female. Names ending in o, typically male. Some names ending in e are male, some female. Many names, male and female, end in consonants.

Paul/Paulina, Stephen/Stephanie, Ramon/Ramona, Robert/Roberta, Daniel/Daniella, Nicholas/Nicole or Nicolette, Edward/Edwina

Different endings for names may also indicate a diminutive, a form of a name denoting affection or intimacy. Think of names used for a child—Bobby, Janie, Marky—in contrast to names used for adults—Bob, Jane, Mark. Or consider names used by a child—mommy and daddy.

Note that names may have religious roots or may contain names for God
Names once chosen for their religious connection may now be used by those with no knowledge of that connection. Check names for meaning and history. You wouldn’t want to give a character a name honoring a god of a religion not compatible with his own.

Michael, Elizabeth, Daniel, Muhammad, Jesus, Christopher, Abdul, Joshua, Jonathan, Inga

Check name meaning
Look for names that have meaning important to your story. You may never explain or allude to the meaning of character names, but a reader who knows the meaning of a name will feel that extra tie to your story.

The characters in your apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy might all have names related to water. This would be quite appropriate for a story set in a desert landscape and would constantly reinforce the characters’ yearning for water and perhaps a return to the way life used to be.

Test name combinations
Make sure first and last names and names that might frequently be paired in your story—best friends, protagonist and antagonist, employee and boss—don’t combine to form unintended combinations, particularly those whose pairings already exist.

Comedy teams—Rowan & Martin, Lewis & Martin, Abbott & Costello

Products—Ben & Jerry, Doc Martens, Granny Smith

Other combinations—Holmes & Watson, Smith & Jones, Tom & Jerry, Bert & Ernie, Lucy & Ricky, Ginger & Roger, Hal & David, Mark & Spencer

Check initials
Look at initials, especially if you plan to use the initials or intend to spell out the full name often so that initials are capped and thus stand out to the reader.

KKK, KGB, FBI, ASS, RAT

Be aware of the sounds of names
Don’t choose rhyming names for multiple characters unless you do so for a purpose.  And then make sure you really want to use names that rhyme.

Randy/Andy, Paul/Saul, Payne/Jane/Lane, Molly/Holly, Sherry/Terry/Larry/Jerry

Consider not only the sounds of names, but the spellings. Only use names of similar letters, letter patterns, or word length if you are doing so to purposely mislead readers or because doing so has purpose for the story.

Dale/Dave/Dane

Mark/Mike/Mick/Mack

Jan/Jane/Janet

Mick/Jack/Beck

Sally/Suzie/Sammy/Shelly

Martin/Morgan/Monroe

Search names for fame
You probably won’t want to use names of well-known people, so check the Internet. You may end up using a name that belongs to someone famous—or infamous—but try to avoid naming characters with names of real people who might be known to your readers.

You’ll want to create character names of your own, so don’t borrow character names from other writers or their stories. Check the Internet for fictional characters with the same name.

Consider character type
Purposely play to or against type when naming characters. Think soft and gentle names for soft characters, harsh for unkind or hard characters. Choose an old-fashioned name for an older character or one who holds traditional values.

Or, mislead readers by giving your tender protagonist a hard name. Such a name might indicate the strong backbone the protagonist never knew he had and which he grows into by story’s end.

Consider reader experiences with names
Some names have connotations because of notable people in history, entertainment, sports, politics, or from recent news events. Again, a quick Internet search can help you make sure you don’t choose a name that has a connotation that works against your character.

For example, the name John Wayne might bring up images of a cowboy, a soldier, an actor, a serial killer, a comedic character in a Jackie Chan movie, a joke, a drink, or an airport. If you know about possible connections, you can either adjust the name or at least write with knowledge of possible fallout from naming a character with a known name.

Realize that readers may also have connections to names beyond any public ones. Someone may have a brother, best friend, or worst enemy named John. You won’t be able to control for every factor when naming your characters. That is, no matter how altruistic and perfect your Peter Oxford is, a reader may not like him simply because his name is Peter and Peter was the name of the reader’s sixth-grade foe.

Consider sound, rhythm, and musicality of names
You may want names that roll, that allow the reader time to linger. Or, you may want short names that are quickly spoken. Consider the emotion created by a name—does a name evoke anger or pity or compassion or disgust?

Will the name work as well at the end of your story as it does at the beginning? That is, if the character changes, does his name still fit? Maybe he’s grown into it. Maybe he’s grown out of it. Consider giving characters a name they can use for most of the story and a second one if they’ll need it for when their life changes.

Think about nicknames
While it’s good for readers to know a character by a single name, some characters may have special or pet names for other characters. Or, they may call a character one name to his face or when speaking to others and use a different name in their heads when thinking of that character.

Make characters real by having them relate to their friends, co-workers, and enemies as real people would, with a variety of names—as long as you don’t inadvertently confuse readers.

Change names that don’t fit
No rule says you can’t change a name, even if beta readers, your agent, and your editor have read your manuscript. If a character turns out to be different from what you expected and needs a different name, change it.

Consider readers with backgrounds in other languages
There’s always a chance you might name a character using a word that means something inappropriate or funny in another language. While you can do a quick check, this is one name blooper you might not always catch or be able to prevent.

If your check of a name doesn’t raise any flags, don’t give this tip another thought. But if a beta reader or editor suggests a change because a name has meaning in a language other than the original, check it out further.

Watch for repeated use of names in dialogue
Not a tip for choosing names but for using them. Readers tire of seeing names repeatedly in dialogue. Three-dimensional people don’t repeat names constantly when speaking; characters shouldn’t either. Use names to identify speakers and listeners and when you want to make a point or the character is expressing an emotion that is enhanced by the use of a name. Otherwise, assume readers know who is speaking and skip the name.

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Names carry a great responsibility in novels. They can be a quick indicator of a character’s personality or of the challenges he must overcome to realize his true self.

Names can propel a character into his story, serving either as encouragement or goad. A name can reflect his parents’ love for him or their disdain.

A name can be a handicap or a weapon, carving out a character’s personality before he’s old enough to create his own. A name may influence every step a character makes.

A character may fight the legacy of a family name or prove himself worthy of bearing it. He may embrace his name, shun it, ignore it, or flaunt it. He may wear it or hide it. He may trample it himself or defend it when others do.

A character’s name defines and reflects his personality as well as his dreams.

A character’s name is not the character himself, but a character without a fitting name is less than he could be. Less than he should be. He is less character than the story requires and that the reader expects.

Names can make the man or the woman of fiction. They can form character and direct reader expectation. They can exploit that expectation. They can influence plot and determine story resolution. Names can create intimacies that no other element of fiction can create.

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Plot your stories well. Write soaring description and thrilling dialogue. Give your characters deep motivations that will carry them through their trials.

But don’t forget to call them by name, names that reflect significant facets of those characters.

Create compelling characters for your compelling stories.

And start with compelling names.

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15 Responses to “Don’t Call Me Ishmael—Name that Character”

  1. Xlaxngin…trying to sound it out… XD

    Thank you so much for this fantastic advice!

  2. Kid, if you can sound it out, you’re doing better than I am.

    Glad to be of service.

  3. Okay.

    Klak-sin-gin (g pronounced like in girl or grill)

  4. J.E. DeHart says:

    Is Jay and Clay okay? (Jay is eight and idolizes his tough, eleven-year-old brother)

    • J. E., since parents do give their children rhyming names, this can work. But keep in mind that readers could still get confused. Readers don’t necessarily read all the letters in a name before they conclude who has been named—maybe they just note the –ay and thus know that the action or dialogue involves Ray rather than Melvin, the two major characters in a story. Using names that have similar letters and/or sounds means readers have to pay closer attention as they read. Sometimes that’s a nothing thing, but at other times it may slow the read considerably.

      Just something for writers to keep in mind.

  5. Peter Pollak says:

    You didn’t mention ethnicity which can help authors name their characters both in terms of fitting inwith one’s ethnic background or going against type, for example if a character brought up in a Polish household has changed her Polish sounding name and that comes up in the story. It’s also important to know ethnic naming conventions. For example, in some cultures a son’s fist name is his father’s last name.

  6. Alexis Marie says:

    I’m an amateur writer and I tried to search for antagonists names then I saw this. It really helped me a lot. Thank you. I’m now thinking of changing some of my character’s names. I hope you’ll continue giving tips like these. It really helps. Especially for us amateurs who don’t have much experiences yet.

    Thank you!

  7. Pekky says:

    How about Liam and Ian? Would that mislead a reader?

    They are brothers but they are vastly different.

    • Pekky, those names might indeed prove confusing. It’s the visual for these two. The L in Liam helps, but you should expect that some readers will get confused at least a few times.

      Head off confusion by using info other than names to identify the characters, especially if each figures as the major focus in scenes. So when you switch the focus from Liam to Ian, make sure the reader knows exactly who is featured in the new scene.