This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at www.jenniferhudsontaylor.net.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Naming Characters in Fiction


By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

One of the hardest things I've discovered about writing is creating the perfect characters. The wrong name could destroy the character's image. A simple name can remind someone of a particular person they've known or a celebrity that they may or may not like. Some names sound nerdy and dweeby, while others sound beautiful and handsome, and old or young.

Then you have to consider your characters' background. Where did they come from? What is their ethnicity? Culture? Religion? Family traditions? All these things play a part in naming our children, and thus, naming our characters. Your character doesn't have to like his/her name. Perhaps they go by a nickname, because they hate their real name. That would make them seem more real, possibly more likeable.

When I first started writing, I would go out of my way to pick a "unique" name that wasn't very common for my main characters. The reason I did this was because I didn't want people to identify the name with someone they already knew. I wanted to make sure my characters didn't "feel" out of sorts with my readers. The best way to do this was to create someone they hadn't heard of before. This didn't go over very well.

If a reader isn't sure how to pronounce a name, reading a book with a character name you can't identify with is quite annoying. It makes them wonder how the person's name is supposed to sound, rather than them concentrating on the story. People don't like being annoyed. Also, if your character is English, and you've given them a Scottish or French name without a reasonable explanation, it nags at readers. If that character has a parent or grandparent who is French or Scottish, then you can probably get away with it. You've given them an associated link. Otherwise, they are going to be annoyed. If you write historical, you can't use a name that wasn't yet in use before the time period you're writing in, and you will want to stick with a spelling variation that was widely used then, not now.

Most names have various spellings with a root word that can most likely be traced back to a country or language of origin. For example: Alice is a very common name that has as many as 70 spelling variations, some of which include: Alise, Alyce, Alyse, Elyse, Elise, Elyze, Alica, Alicia, Alisa, Alisia, Alyze, Alize, etc. While it has been used since medieval England, it's origin is traced back to French, but is also widely used in Dutch, German, Spanish, Czec, Slavic, etc. Because of it's common use throughout Europe and over a period of several centuries, you can't go wrong with this common name.

When I think of Alice, I think of Alice in the Wonderland or the maid on The Brady Bunch. It already has connotations connected to it in my mind. Yet, since it has more than one connection, I'm not bothered by another character being name Alice.

You might be thinking that common names are boring and too traditional. And I agree, but they do serve a purpose. How many Regencies can you name that use the plain name of "Jane"? Jane Austen herself, used Jane Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, Jane Fairfax and Jane Bates in Emma, and Jane Fraser in Mansfield Park. None of these characters lost their individuality due to their names, because "Jane" is easily identified with so many different characters. Concentrate on making your character shine through his/her personality rather than relying on a name to do that for them.

I also know lots of people named Jane in real life. When I think of "Jane", I'm not stuck on one individual like I am when I think of Scarlett. While there might be real people named Scarlett, I've never known one, and I've never read another book with a character by that name. If I were to read one, I'd be constantly thinking of Katie Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

Recently, an editor asked me to change a character's name to something more traditional. I complied because I want my novel to be published, and I've learned that editors are in their position for a reason. They know their readers and what will connect with them. They know the market. I want to be flexible and enjoyable to work with. I'm willing to learn all that I can from them. One day I might have my own individual character that is attributed to my work, but Scarlett belongs to Margaret Mitchell and Gatsby belongs to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have to wait for my turn, the season that is meant for my work.

I found an online the Regency Name Generator that might be helpful to some of you at:
http://www.ugoi.net/nonsense/name.html

One resource I enjoy is The Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon from The Writer's Digest.

I'm interested in how you choose names for your characters, or your children if you aren't a writer. What names annoy you and why?

17 comments:

Some good points here about naming characters to make them acceptable but memorable too. I research names to fit the era I'm writing about too, but try to make them different enough to stand out.

A lot of good ideas here, thanks.

Hi Jennifer. Naming my characters is probably one of the most important parts of writing for me. I also over think them. Some of my characters come to me named, some of them don't. For the ones that don't, I usuall go online to www.behindthename.com. It's a nice website with a wonderful data base of names both common and unique. It also has a section on mythological and literary names to peruse. I place a lot of weight on the meaning of names and Behind the Name gives you the meaning and the history associated with each name.

Happy Monday!
Jen

As a new novelist, I am a little shaky on this issue. I did research historical names on the internet so that I would not use an inappropriate one. I am still thinking of changing one or two of them after my first edit is finished. Makes me nervous though to second guess my original pick.

Great post. It's really the most important thing next to a great premiss. Names say a lot and are the monkiers that guide our readers.

I'm the opposite. I've always preferred giving my characters very normal everyday names. Sometimes there is a reason behind it like my teen psychic named Cassandra (for those of you who don't get the connection, read up on your Greek mythology). And who would ever suspect ordinary Katie Jones of being an international assassin?

Other than that though, I prefer the normal.

I love choosing my character's names. Sometimes they come equipped with them and it's not up to me at all.

Sometimes I just start writing and the names just happen through the characters' conversations.

At other times I have a blank line for paragraphs until a name just happens to fit in. I rarely think out a name. Even with my own children. The names just seem to fit and everyone lives happily ever after.

Thanks for posting on my blog.

Like JStantonChandler, My favorite source for names, meanings, name histories and origins is http://www.behindthename.com. What I love best about this is you can search their massive database by meaning or culture instead of just names themselves.

You can also use http://surnames.behindthename.com for last names, which is often even harder than choosing first names!

I generally start with meaning for characters. I try to keep them pretty normal, modern names that you might encounter multiple times (Margaret, Richard, Anna) but I want to match the actually meaning of the name to the character and to their parents (if they're in the story. Even if readers don't realize the connection, generally they seem to live up to their names quite on their own!

~Tara

It's so interesting to hear how everyone determines their character names. I haven't tried the Behind the Name site. I'm going to bookmark it. Thank you for sharing it as a resource.

If anyone else knows of any great resources, I'd love to hear from you.

I have a cousin named Scarlet. She even has red hair! She's nothing like Scarlet O'Hara though.

There are a couple of names that I just can't use, even though I know multiple people who have the name. Angie is one of them. That name has been so thoroughly ruined for me by one person that I know who has it.

I don't think I could ever name a heroine Ursula either.

I'm thankful for the find and replace option in word because I don't always find the right name... right away. Then, one of my most recent books I've written I found that I'd named two people Simon and two people Theresa. They were all minor characters but I felt like a dork nonetheless. I look at behindthename also. Sometimes their name is right there in my mind when I write the character and sometimes it takes a bit. I don't use any family names, though, and most likely never will.

Thanks for your comments in my blog today.

I am writing a book about a pioneer family who homesteads in Kansas. I researched a lot of names and actually settled on Alice, or as her brother will call her, Icy for short.

I actually know a woman in her 40s named Scarlett -- she is a firey redhead, fortunately, who can hold her own with the fact her mother named her for the fascinating Scarlett O'Hara.....I visited the Margaret Mitchell house and museum in Atlanta -- in the apt where she wrote GWTW. It is fascinating.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.......

LOL, as a sidenote, it would be bad to be named for a book character. But I can tell you from experience, it's much worse to be named for a book HOUSE!

~Tara

I grew up with one of my best friends named Tara. I love that name. I'm thinking of using the name Tara-Lynn in one of my Southern novels based in Columbia, SC. It's another one of those books I've sort of plotted, but haven't gotten around to writing yet.

Tara is a great name. It's been very good for me. Distinct enough that everyone you meet doesn't share it, but normal enough that everyone can pronounce it (except my 5th grade teacher who insisted on Tay-ra for some reason).

The only bad part was that my parents repeatedly told me I was named for a house. When I was in middle school and chubby, this did not encourage me to be self-confident. So they told me the original use of the name was for the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. It's basically the biggest hill. Because that's better... >.<

~Tara

Oh, and it's funny you should say Tara-Lynn. I'm Tara Lindsay. I always thought the sounds flowed quite nicely!

~Tara