Some years ago, I wrote about the importance of names for characters, and things to consider when choosing them. More recently, other issues about names have come up for me, and I thought it was time to do an update.
When writing a novel, choosing names for your characters can be alternately fun and frustrating. I would doubt that any of my books go from start to finish with all the same names; many of them undergo several iterations before I’m happy with them. Personally, I love figuring out a name for a new important character, but it can be a long and bumpy journey, especially if I don’t think it through completely. Here are some things to consider:
Age/Era of Character
Is your character an 80-year-old woman? Do you know what names were popular in 1940? Luckily, with a search online, that’s easy to pin down: Betty; Judith; Margaret. Those are all, of course, perfectly good names, even today, but they are not nearly as popular now as they were then. What’s interesting, though, is that name popularity cycles, which means that what’s old becomes new again. The most popular girls’ names for 2020? Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella. On the one hand, this shows that any name you pick is probably okay, but think logically about it. If you had a sixteen-year-old girl in a story, would you want to name her Hortense or Dorcas? If the above 80-year-old was named Britney or Madison, would your readers agree those were believable names for her age? Just remember that your quest is to bring your readers into your make-believe world, and if a name seems out of place or out of time, that might be just enough to pop them out of the story.
This can be tricky, especially if we’re not terribly familiar with countries and heritages beyond our own. Have an Asian character in your book? Better make sure you really have a Chinese name, or Japanese, or Korean, or Vietnamese. Remember that “Asian” is not a nationality, or a heritage. Do your research and be specific. I’ve heard stories of writers naming Japanese characters Chan or Wong, and personally I’d be pretty mortified to let something like that pass. Likewise, is your character of Jewish descent? Fine, but is s/he a Russian Jew? A German Jew? Be meticulous and make sure the name you choose aligns with the character’s heritage and location. Even when we’re writing fiction and making up a story, we want that story to be as authentic as possible.
Name vs. Personality
Sometimes I think it’s easy for us to want to/need to tout our character’s personality via their name. On occasion, I have done that purposefully, but mostly I avoid it. It seems trite and a cheap shot. A police officer named Law? A bricklayer named Mason? A murderer named Hunter? Yes, it actually does happen sometimes, and it’s cute… but do you really want that? Like some of these other issues, it might be more distracting than anything else. If you have a specific reason for doing this, then go for it; if not, you might want to steer clear of it.
In my paranormal series, my female main character is named Lacey. In one book, I introduced a young girl ghost and I gave her the name Lucy. It conveyed everything I wanted for her—the time she lived in, the middle-class origins. It was perfect. Until I realized it was only two letters different than my MC’s name. I make it a point to keep to a minimum names that start with the same letter as my MC’s (or any other prominent character), but to have one so similar would be, I think, unnecessarily distracting, even confusing. So I renamed her Trudy. Much better; still conveys her time, but much easier to keep her distinguished from anyone else in the book.
Names of People You Know
I’m writing a series (currently on Book 27), so I go through a lot of characters and a lot of names. When I’m writing and naming characters, I always take into account the names of people I know. There’s no law against it, but I would never use my best friend’s name for a murderer. I wouldn’t name a sexual predator after my grandson. Sure, in life there are lots of such overlaps, but I would hate to have a friend or relative read something that bothered them. Most of the time when I use the name of someone close to me, I use it as what I call a throw-away name. It’s the name of a character that only appears once in the book, or at least very minimally. The character is not instrumental in any way, introduced for a specific purpose and quickly forgotten. It’s not because I consider my friends throw-aways; it’s that I use their names for characters that are neutral to the story, that have no intense emotion attached to them. If I never used names of people I know, my pool of names would be much smaller than it already is.
Names that Sound Pleasantly Familiar
A couple years ago, I was writing a western and I needed a throw-away name for a one-scene-only character. I came up with a fittingly western first name, then tried out several last names until I found the perfect match. I was just about to write it down when I realized… it was the real first and last name of a friend of mine! No wonder it sounded so good. Gah. Similarly, I wrote another book and introduced a secondary character, decided on a name that sounded good and used it. Only after I’d published the book did I see a commercial for a U.S. Congressperson with the same name. Whoops! I quickly changed the name in the book by a single letter and uploaded the new version. Not a major faux pas, but still… I’m learning to Google names before I use them.
What other pitfalls have you discovered in the evolution of your characters’ names?