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Thursday, July 21, 2011

The name game

I was asked recently how I choose names for my characters.  It's an interesting question, and one for which I have no ready answer.  Most of the time, characters in my stories seem to come with their names pre-assigned.  I know that's not literally true -- but that's what it feels like.  The main character of my work-in-progress, Signal to Noise, is named Tyler Vaughan.  Why?  Beats me.  That's just who he is.  It's hard for me to imagine Tyler with any other name.

That said, I do believe that character names are pretty important.  There's no way that the antagonist of C. S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader could have been quite as weaselly as he was had he not been named Eustace Clarence Scrubb.  Interesting, though, that when his character "reformed" -- and you may recall that he was the protagonist of The Silver Chair, and did quite a commendable job as the good guy -- they started calling him "Scrubb" instead of "Eustace."  "Scrubb," while not a last name I would choose, sounds kind of gruff and hale-fellow-well-met, as opposed to "Eustace," which it's hard to say without whining.  (My apologies to any Eustaces in the studio audience.)

Naming conventions in different genres can sometimes engender unintentional humor.  Character names in space-epic type science fiction often contain unpronounceable combinations of consonants, and usually involve apostrophes.  "Ah, my arch-enemy, G'filte of M'nshvitz Five!  It is I, your nemesis, Sh'l'mil of Oy'g'valt!"  Sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels usually rely more on accents, and quasi-Celtic sounding names:  "And then, Lünàavórne drew out the Sacred Sword Gínsü and raised it aloft, praying to Alávúnìël, the God of Random Diacritical Marks."

And then there's romance novels, in which the guys usually have strong names with blatant sexual overtones, such as "Dirk Hardbody," and the women have names that sound like they were dreamed up by a 17th century English lord, on acid.  A former member of a writers' group I belonged to was writing a contemporary romance, and her heroine was named, and I am not making this up, "Royalle de Tremontaine."

So, you can see that you can go a little off the deep end, character-name-wise.  I tend to keep it simple, unless I'm deliberately shooting for humorous effect.  It helps that I'm a teacher, and each year I have about a hundred new sources for names.  (And if you take a look at some of the names of the villains in my novels, it might narrow down the guesses as to which students I disliked the most... heh-heh-heh.)

In any case, this is probably not much help, if you're struggling with name choices.  So here are a few more down-to-earth recommendations:

  • Think about what your character's personality is like, and choose accordingly.  First impressions in novels are often formed on the basis of the character's name.  Your readers will respond differently to a Ryan than they will to an Elmer - as unfair as that may seem to the Elmers of the world.
  • Don't go overboard, even if you're writing genre fiction.  The point is to keep your readers immersed in your story, not to have them read the name and snicker -- if that happens, they've been jerked out of the world you're trying to create.  Follow the conventions of the genre, but don't overstep the line, or you'll end up in inadvertent self-parody.
  • That said, make your names memorable.  You want people to think about your characters even when they're not reading your book.  Think about some of the most-recognized character names out there -- Bilbo Baggins, Ebenezer Scrooge, Scarlett O'Hara, Hercule Poirot, Elinor Dashwood, Inigo Montoya, Atticus Finch, Sherlock Holmes, Luke Skywalker... each one of those has something a little different about it that makes it stand out, but is not so odd that it seems ridiculous.  (Contrast that to the protagonist of one of my all-time favorite books, Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven.  His name is George Orr, but that is such an unmemorable name that despite having read the book several times, I had to look it up just now because I couldn't remember it.)

So give it some thought.  Think about people you know, look in telephone directories and baby name books, and be creative.  Your characters deserve to have names that match their personalities -- don't underestimate the power that a wonderful, or abysmal, name choice will have on your readers' impressions of your story.


  1. I have a lovely pair of books that help me out; Name that Baby, which is divided by type of name, "Surnames are first names," "think-twice names" (for instance there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Adolf as a name, but most ppl won't chose it for their child... on the other hand, I know a lot of Josephs, so it's hard to predict which names will get the proverbial axe), floral and fauna names, ultra feminine names, etc.

    The other is divided by country of origin; so if you have people you need to sound French, or German, or Biblical, or Chinese...

  2. You are hilarious :-) Ever think of writing something purely snarky? I'm to tired to remember what the genre is called - um, parody? Or something?

    One thing I love about the Harry Potter books are the character's names. They are on the edge of "out there" (how many Hermiones do you know in real life?) but memorable, often comical, and in every single case PERFECT for the character. Severus Snape, Neville Longbottom, Hagrid - you know exactly what kind of person you are dealing with just from the name.

    I have an excruciatingly hard time choosing names for characters in fiction, or even worse - pseudonyms for research subjects. For pseudonyms, I want a name that matches the "feel" of that person's real name, but won't actually give away their identity to people who know me or them and are reading my academic work.

  3. I'm like you--names are so essential to character development and usually come to me. They are organic. I will use a baby name book or website occasionally, but usually the names just pop into my mind. And I have a rule as far as the genre names--only one unpronounceable name per book. If there is an unpronounceable place name, all the names of characters have to be fairly easy to pronounce. And no ulmauts. If you need fancy diacritical marks, the name automatically moves into the unpronounceable category and it voids every other unpronounceable.