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:
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?