Names in Books – How Much Do They Matter?

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  That is a classic of course from the Bard, but how true is it?
“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That is a classic of course from the Bard, but how true is it?

From the name of your protagonist, your evil antagonist, your main and subsidiary characters and minions, your chapter titles (if you use them), right through to the title of your masterpiece – do the actual names matter? They obviously matter to the creator – the author – but do they really matter to the reader, to the general public? In my humble opinion: You bet your life they do!

Names have a certain ring to them, and unless you’re writing something that is deliberately farcical, or really tongue in cheek, like the old James bond movies, with Plenty O’Toole or Pussy Galore, you should use names that don’t immediately snap the reader out of their state of suspended disbelief.

In real life, people use ordinary names in a way that will express their individuality. For instance, a solid, dependable name like James can sound so different: a young person might be Jimmy or Jamie, but those adaptations will soon seem out of place as the character matures. Jim or Jake may be appropriate, depending on the era, age and character of the individual. Depending on a number of variables, quite apart from age, a name may fit, or not; and era, socioeconomic circumstances and or political environment can play a part in that determination. Bond, James Bond, couldn’t be anything but James of course. (Melissa Bowersock analyzes this a little more deeply in her article entitled What’s in a Name.)

So how do you choose? Within the world of fiction writing the choice is entirely the author’s domain, unless of course it’s an historical fiction based around the lives of actual historical characters; for the purpose of this post, however, we’ll stick strictly with fictional characters.

I find that I’m actually pretty lucky, in that my characters seem to just step up and introduce themselves, and unless a particular name, for whatever reason, seems really off I don’t question my muse. It may just be that I’ve been around a long time, met a lot of different people, in many and varied circumstances, from every walk of life. I’ve found that just as real life can be stranger than fiction; often real life people, becoming themselves, look, think, sound and act like the characters they believe themselves to be, and if they don’t have an appropriate name – one they can adjust to that character – they somehow acquire a nickname, or simply assume a pseudonym that more suits the character they are.

The naming of characters is an age-old subject and the kind of advice (rule of thumb) that is usually offered is all too familiar but, as with all rules and guidelines, it’s probably best to be aware of the general guidelines so that, even if you choose to ignore them, you know when you’re doing that. I’ve listed just thirteen of the many but I’m sure you can all think of more.

1. Make the name age-appropriate.

2. Choose a name by meaning, a name that reflects the character in some way. (The Evil Mastermind goes into more detail on this in Name Droppers.)

3. Science fiction names don’t have to sound alien.

4. Don’t be too exotic, it can interfere with your readers’ suspension of disbelief.

5. It’s a good Idea to have the name fit the context (world, period etc.).

6. Long names, especially a main character that appears regularly, can be tedious and get in the way.

7. Avoid similar sounding names, the last thing you want to do is confuse the reader.

8. Don’t be tempted to give temporary names just to get on with the story; if you write the name enough times you can find yourself getting used to it – not noticing how crappy it actually is – and consequently get stuck with it.

9. Google search names that you think you’ve made up – you might find that you’ve actually heard them somewhere else, logging them subconsciously in your mind.

10. Make sure you choose names that fit the period and the socioeconomic slant of your story.

11. Names that have a particular implication, especially subconsciously, can be effective but don’t get hung up on meanings; the vast majority of readers will probably miss it anyway.

12. Avoid androgynous names, unless of course you’re doing it for a particular reason.

13. It’s important to pronounce the names out loud to know exactly how they sound; then again that should come with the territory; I believe the whole book should be read aloud, constantly, as you write it.

How much difference does the title of a book make? There aren’t as many “experts” giving advice on what to do and not to do, in regard to book titles, as there are “experts” giving advice about character names. Once upon a time the responsibility of book titles was firmly in the publisher’s corner; however with the incredible growth of the independents they (the experts) are starting to appear. Their advice is generally based on past classics or bestsellers:

  • a special place: The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells
  • a certain time: 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  • another world: Dune by Frank Herbert
  • a short, intriguing description: Last Man Standing by David Baldacci
  • an overarching theme: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • an ambiguous statement: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • an innocuous line in the book: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • using the protagonist’s name: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

The truth is, I believe, there is no silver bullet. Just as there is no one best way to tell a story there is no one best way to sell a story; if there was we would all be doing it.

Author: T.D. McKinnon

Scottish author T.D.McKinnon ‘Survived the Battleground of Childhood’ in the coal mining communities of Scotland and England before joining the British Parachute Regiment at fifteen where he remained for five years. He has trained in the martial arts for most of his life and had five Karate schools in Scotland before immigrating to Australia. He writes across several genres and has completed five books that are all available as eBooks. He lives in Tasmania, Australia with his wife. Learn more about T.D.McKinnon at his website and Amazon author page.

19 thoughts on “Names in Books – How Much Do They Matter?”

  1. Excellent post. I’d add one more to the list. Don’t make your names so strange they are too difficult to pronounce.

    I have a bad habit of liking certain sounds and so my names tend to be too much alike. I had th change a couple in each book when that was brought to my attention.

    1. That’s right, Yvonne, that’s why I said you should say the names aloud; if you have any difficulty at all you can imagine the trouble a reader might have.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Yvonne.

  2. This list should be printed, and kept near the PC. It is easy to get lost in the world of names. I try not to have my characters names start with the same letter; I don’t really know if it matters. I don’t want a Christine and a Carmen. I agree with Yvonne, we both have fantasy worlds, and it is oh so tempting to use the exotic. Your # 6 and 7 are spot on. The little details count, and you want the reader to remember the character(s). “POTTER!!”

    1. Yes, a lot of things to remember when allocating character names, Aron, and so many variables. If you have a certain criteria that you can run them through it is helpful, time-wise.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Aron.

  3. Great points. I particularly agree with 6, 7 and 9. I read a novel based on the Aztec empire and the multi-syllabic Aztec names and their exotic mix of letters made it almost impossible to keep the characters straight. I’ve seen many novels with names too similar to distinguish the characters, a major hindrance while reading . I will seldom use the same starting letting for more than one name, unless, at least, they are different sexes. And lastly, you make a good point about Googling the name to find out if it really is someone’s name. I’ve caught myself using a name I really like, only to find out it’s a name I heard or saw years ago that belongs to a real person. Great list of things to remember–and avoid!

    1. I completely agree with you, Melissa, about the difficulty with multisyllable names when dealing with certain places and eras, it’s a difficult one to deal with. My own ‘Terra Nullius’ is just such a book; the problem was that I was using the actual historical character’s names and so I opted to use them, only cutting down the number of syllables on one key character whose name sounded too much like a more major character. But you’re right it is tricky.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Melissa.

    1. Maybe not Herbert (depending on the kind of scenario – Harold Potter doesn’t sound very engaging out of context) but Herb or, as Yvonne said, Herbie just might.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Mary.

  4. An author friend wrote a children’s book with the main character named Susan. She got nowhere. Changed the girl’s name to Cricket, and was picked up right away. I think interesting names, just this side of everyday, work well. As long as they are easy to pronounce out loud and don’t have weird spellings. I remember reading a comic as a kid and there was a character named “Geoff.” Now, as an adult, I know that is pronounced the same as “Jeff.” But back then, in a comic aimed for the under 12 crowd, I kept calling him “Gee-off” in my head.

    1. Hi Julie, an interesting point, and wouldn’t it be good if we could count on that every time, but you couldn’t get any more ordinary than Harry (Potter) for a boy’s name aimed at twelve year olds and yet that couldn’t have worked out better. By the way, if that comic had been in the UK when I was a boy, Geoff wouldn’t have been read any other way, it was the only possible spelling of the shortening of Geoffrey.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Julie.

      1. Actually Alan, I really think that would work: you mention the name Qeggyanishimalista Tsarinaovichkala just once, to get everyone’s attention, and then immediately switching to Q.T.

        Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Alan.

  5. I’m intrigued by the whole subject of character names: how the characters introduce themselves and the names other characters refer to them as. Tells a lot about them. What they HATE to be called and why…even more revealing. Thank you, TD!

    1. It actually struck me pretty early in my life (the whole name thing); I was named after my father and, when I was young, I didn’t like him much (hate seems like a very strong word now, but I really hated him). At one time while I was at school, because my initials were TD and one of the subjects was technical drawing, which was on our schedule as TD, someone called me Tec and it stuck for a while. While I was in the army I was Mac, and for a while when I was in the close personal protection business I was TAN (tough as nails) or TANT (tough as nails Tom) or just TT (tough Tom). My point is that, for one reason or another, I was quite a different person, portraying different aspects (in survival mode) of my personality, and that was being picked up on by those associated with the character that was me. For a long time now I have been TD to the literary world, and to those closest to me I’m the gentle, caring person who was christened Thomas.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Laurie.

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