26 October 2011

5 Dos When Naming Your Characters

by Diane Carlisle

Let's talk about character names a bit. And I'm coming at this from a reader standpoint. Why? Because I'm a reader! I love to read. As a matter of fact I do more reading than writing these days. Here are 5 things to think about when choosing character names.

1. Please give your characters names that are not similar to one another. For example, don't put Kaleb and Kalee in the same story or in the same proximity to one another. The reader will become exhausted trying to follow who is doing or saying what. Reading should be enjoyable, not feel like we're tracking and sorting oranges and tangerines.

2. Be creative with names, but simple is better. Ofishella doesn't quite do it for me. And try to make sure that names belong in the culture in which the story takes place. If they don't, please give information to the reader which tells them why this foreign name is where it is. In other words, if Asish and Mahua live in India and hire a nanny whose name is Linda, please explain why Linda is there and how she came to be. Diversity is wonderful, just give some backstory, and I say this in the voice of Tony Montana, "you gonna has to esplanit to me."

3. Think about a character's traits before settling with a name. If I read the name Dustin or Brittany, I'm expecting a teenager. Don't ask me why, I just am. If I read Ruth or Martha, I'm expecting an old lady.

Martha stood up and stomped off toward the kitchen. Her wobbly legs gave out and she fell and landed on her tush, the padding of her diaper lessening the impact.

See? I just don't see Martha as a baby learning how to walk. In reality, there probably are a few baby Ruths (no pun intended) or baby Marthas out there somewhere. The problem is for the majority of readers these names are going to connote old ladies.

4. Make sure the social position of your character works well with the name you choose. You don’t want to have Billy Joe Baker running a software company and you certainly don’t want Edward Bentley Groesman, III selling hot dogs from a cart at Lake Ella.

5. Stick with one name. Richard shouldn’t be called Dick interchangeably, even if his wife is mad at him. A friend named Kimberly shouldn’t be referred to as Kim for short if you are introducing her as Kimberly. If anything else, you should make that distinction in the beginning and then stick with the shorter name throughout, “Hi, I’m Kimberly Johnson, but please call me Kim.” From that point forward, she is to be referred to as simply Kim. If you think about it, why wouldn’t someone just say their name was Kim if that’s what they want to be called? Why are you, the author, going against her wishes anyway?

In the voice of Obama, “Let me be clear…this is not a bitch session on character names…far from it. This is simply character name statements. I don’t think I can be any more clearer on this matter. Thank you.”

So, what tricks do you use when creating your character names? Do you have rules for naming your characters? Any peeves on character naming conventions?


  1. This post is too funny! I never thought about this type of information - but you're right, Martha, definitely not a baby's name. I have the tendency to name my characters along the lines of Michelle (my middle name, so it's a standby character name), Catherine, and standard American girl names...so I either do that, or I keep them "nameless" until a name comes up for me. :)

    I hate thinking up character names!!

  2. Nicole, I always come up with boring names! The more I critique though, I find these things that jump out at me "because" I'm so boring. =)

    As always, thanks for stopping by. You make the Writer's Digest forum so much fun to read! hehe

  3. I have two character naming books and they have some great names, but I also combine names to come up with some. Since I write Science Fiction, I can come up with some creative and interesting names, some of which come from my African background.

    Thanks for this blog. It's good.

  4. I've never really thought much about "how" I name a character, for me the characters come to mind as fully formed 'persons' who just are who they are. I agree with everything you've said but as a writer I will admit to breaking your rule #5. I've had one or two characters who would go by their names or a nickname depending on who they were with. I think it's something that depends a lot on the situation - you can't just randomly throw in a nickname, it should be explained somehow, like your Kim example, or something that is easily connected.

    Anyways, I really liked this - it was funny and made me think about my own process and whether a reader might find my character names innappropriate or confusing.

    ~following the WW Blog Hop on Nicole's site~

  5. Thank you Deborah and LD. YAY, blog hopper! :D

  6. Good advice, names are significant! So glad I found your blog on Nicole's Writer's blog hop.

  7. I so agree, names should be simple and fit. I can't read those Russian novels because the names are too long and sound the same. I wish someone would take them and just change the names to Bob and Sue and like that. Put a key in the beginning
    Bob = Andreviev Dostoyofinski
    Sue = Nicolettova bosanovanski

    The Cranky Old Man - hopping

  8. Thank you Kelly. By the way, to anonymous, I've experienced Russian names in novels written in English. Orson Scott Card wrote about characters developed in Russian folklore. I love the folklore stuff, but namely the fictional fantasy types like Baba Yaga (sp?). Great having you all visit.

  9. I think I'm going to make people crazy with the Hawaiian names in my manuscript. Sorry. Great post!

  10. No, no, Desert. When in Hawaii, do as the Hawaiians is what I'd heard! ;)

    I spent a week in Hawaii visiting my son when he got back from Iraq. I'm telling you, those are sweet lovely scenes you get to work with if your WIP is set in Hawaii!

  11. Ha ha! This made me laugh. Good advice! And I totally agree about the baby and old lady names. xD

  12. Nick! Someone at my work disagreed with me and I thought..Um, can you see yourself wiping poop from a baby's butt and going, "Now, now, Martha...stop kicking!" :D

    Seriously, I don't make this stuff up! Thanks for stopping by, writer's unite!

  13. It is tough to come up with good names. I often use stand-in names while working and as I am revising I come up with the "real" name that I find fits the character.

  14. Great post. The only one I have to disagree with is the nickname one. I read books all the time where characters will occasionally shorten another character's name. I think it shows a closer relationship between the two in contrast to the other characters who don't use the nickname.

  15. E.D. someone at my last writer's conference mentioned that very technique and I'm going to start using it. Seems like it's a lot easier than stressing over it before you even really get to know your characters in the beginning.

    I see your point Kelly, and I can see another character using a nick as a term of endearment too, and the closeness thing, "Kimmie, dear, pass grammy the salt will ya?" :D

    Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Lol, I'm guilty of breaking both rule number 1 and rule number 5. I have a thing for names starting with the letter J -> so I have like 3 character with J (fortunately distinguishable by length), two with the letter K and so on... I'm trying to break the habit, so in my recent writings I got rid of that problem (plus, have a lot less characters)

    For rule number five - I go for a transition from full name to partial name and then stick with the partial. I also have characters shortening names in their speech. I guess I use the name the character thinks of him/herself as.

    And, yeah, choosing names sucks. In my NaNo, I wanted to name my male MC Eric. I had to search for a suitable last name that is dark and creepy... and found out that the name I wanted was already taken by THE CROW (you know, the movie) So I changed bot names ;-(

  17. This was really great! I especially agree about names sounding to similar. Half of the cast of characters from The Lord of the Rings trilogy have similar names. Elfhelm, Elladan, Elrohir, Elrond, Éomer, Éomund, Éothain, Éowyn, Erestor,
    Erkenbrand. (No, I'm not that cool, I had to look that up) That's just the E's! Don't get me started on the Arwen/Eowyn thing.

    I actually spend a lot of time on a name. It's lame but I often can't write the character properly until they name themselves. Sometimes I name after favorite characters. (I know that's also kinda lame) Sometimes I use names from real life (names, not necessarily traits.)If I have a foreign character, I will research a bit until I find something that fits in with their character traits. Names always mean something in my stuff.
    Nice hopping with you!




  18. Great stories Stephanie and Ms. Brook!

    Stephanie - Eric Boulder sounds like a good one to me.

    I had a character named Ralph Keebler once - he was short and a little round in the middle, gray hair with a comb-over. Recall, Keebler elves? :D

  19. I had to laugh at these. I have broken rule #5 in the book. It's a nickname the MC had given to her friend. She has said she needs to call or talk to her friend Stacie and when her friend answers the phone or ahe finds her she calls her Stace.

  20. I am lucky, my WIP is set in small town US 1935. I just use the census reports for the 1920 and 1930 years. That is always helpful in almost any genre.

  21. I am lucky, my WIP is set in small town US 1935. I just use the census reports for the 1920 and 1930 years. That is always helpful in almost any genre.


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