Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What's in a Name?

By Robin Widmar


My current work in progress started like any other. First came the spark of an idea that grew into a larger concept. Soon, plot points began to develop and I started getting a feel for the main character – her personality, her life experiences, her role in the story. I even came up with a good name that is appropriate for her and her world.

But the secondary characters eluded me. I had a vague sense of who they were and why they were in my story, but those tenuous characteristics seemed to change every time I sat down to write. So did their names. This puzzled me, because character names haven’t ever been an issue. But for this novel, the monikers I chose seemed to fit my characters about as well as a pair of size 6 shoes on size 10 feet. I finally decided that I had to nail down suitable names before I could make progress on character development.

One reason I started obsessing over names is simply because I feel names can make or break a character. Certainly, good writing trumps all, but could a character named Jane Smith have been as fiery and memorable as one named Scarlett O’Hara? Does “Jones, Bob Jones” have the same panache as “Bond, James Bond?” Think about characters like Sherlock Holmes, Holden Caulfield, and Sookie Stackhouse; would they be as memorable if they had been given more conventional names?

I don’t think that every character in a book needs a super-cool, standout name or nickname. Catchy and unique fictional names are becoming the norm rather than the exception in today’s books, but sometimes a name with less impact works just as well depending on the situation. Whatever you choose, be sure your character names are appropriate to the time, place, and theme of the story.

Here are some tips I found for selecting character names:

  • Use names appropriate to the period. If you’re writing 17th century historical fiction, you need names that were used in that time period, not popular baby names from 2013.
  • Think about your character’s background and ethnicity. Does her family tree have roots in another country? Is there a family tradition of passing on names? Use that to your advantage. You can even make it part of the story.
  • Consider the meanings behind names, but avoid the obvious unless you’re going for intentional sarcasm or parody. For example: naming an archery expert Bowman, or calling someone who is good at catching bad guys Hunter. Try for a little subtlety.
  • Use care with famous or historic names that carry their own connotations, which can cause readers to bring preconceived notions into your story.
  • Sometimes nicknames can lend substance to a character, like Ranger (real name Carlos Mancuso) in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels. Nicknames can also make life easier for the reader, as in the case of the Wizard of Oz, whose real name is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs.
  • If your character lives in the world of sword and sorcery, there’s a lot of room to play – but don’t go overboard on apostrophes, guttural breaks, and strings of consonants. They give readers a headache.
  • Read your character names aloud. If you can’t pronounce it, your reader will probably stumble over it as well. 

For more insights on naming characters, check out Brian Klems’ article The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters.

One of my favorite resources is The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon. It lists 25,000 first and last names as well as their meanings, and also offers advice for selecting that perfect character name.

Another of my favorite resources is the credits section of any movie – especially those filmed in other countries – where unique and unusual names often appear. Sometimes I’ll see a name that isn’t all that unusual, but it strikes me as perfect for a particular character.

I’m happy to report that after several months of indecisive agony, each of my cast members has a proper and fitting name. Now I’m on to the next round of difficult choices in character development: Ford or Chevy? Boxers or briefs? Froot Loops or granola in the morning?


About the Author: Robin Widmar works to support a horse habit and writes to follow a dream. When she’s not writing about demons, dragons, or firefighting, she discusses the rampant typographical errors threatening to take over the written world at The World Needs a Proofreader.