Tuesday’s Tutor: What’s in a Name?

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

Brian Klems, online editor for The Writer’s Digest, happened across some great rules for choosing character names. They’d been written by a popular mystery writer, Elizabeth Sims of the Rita Farmer Mysteries.

There are rules? I thought I didn’t generally worry about such matters, because I mostly write fantasy, and I just make up the names myself. Once in a while, based on Arthurian legend, I’ll pick names of some of Arthur’s lesser‑known knights. A fairy tale mash‑up usually has names ready‑made: Snow White, Rapunzel, whatever.

But choosing a character name is important: it is, after all, your baby. It has to suit the personality, time period, be memorable and, of course, awesome. Think of literary names you know: Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield and Stephanie Plum ‑ they “fit” those characters. Use common sense and consider these tips choosing a name:

1. Check root meanings.

You don’t want to choose some funky name only to find out it has a meaning contrary to what you want for your character. Look up the meanings to find a name that means “faithful,” for instance. That’s not as blatant as naming your main character “Faith.”

2. Get your era right.

Check old year books or magazines in your local library, or books written in the era you’re using. Online, you can find lists of “favorite names” and then name your time period: the ’50s, late 1800’s, etc.

3. Say the names out loud.

Is your full, chosen name a tongue twister? Or could it be confused with something else on an audio book? More and more of those are being produced: Klems gives this example “Adam Messina, may sound unclear aloud: Adam Essina? Adah Messina?” Good to ponder.

4. Manage your crew appropriately.

If you have a large cast of characters, or will have by the time you finish your 10‑volume series, use different initial sounds rather than having four characters who have names starting with an “S.” Also, vary the number of syllables and placement of the accented syllable. Take a look at character names in books by Grace Metalious, James Michener, Larry McMurtry, or ‑ yes ‑ J. K. Rowling.

5. Use alliterative initials.

This ploy works when you want to call attention to an important character. Think Daniel Deronda, Bilbo Baggins, Ratso Rizzo, Severus Snape, Brenda Bensch. Oh. Wait. That last one’s not a “character.”  C’est moi! I couldn’t resist.

6. Think it through.

In most crime fiction the murderer rarely has a middle name or initial – the more specific the name, the more likely that a real person out there has it. Such a person might become upset or even try to sue.

7. Check ’em again.

Writing one novel, an author needed a name for a Japanese‑American attorney and decided on “Gary Kwan” only to find, after thousands of hardcovers were printed and shipped to book stores, that Kwan is a Chinese surname. In my own experience, one of my critique friends had chosen a solid, western, good ol’ boy name for a leading character. She decided to change it when I pointed out that it was the same name as a very famous golfer from the previous decade.

I hadn’t thought about “Name Game Rules,” per se, until I read this. But I realized I always use sources to find out the meanings of names (at which point I often recombine syllables to make a “new” name which means something I want as that character); ensure that the time period is accurate; read EVERYTHING out loud, names included, to myself and to critique partners; thoughtfully differentiate names between characters in each volume; sometimes use alliterative initials (but I should check that when I do so, it’s one of the main characters); and am careful about names which might belong to a “real” person. Guess I’ve intuitively done nearly all the above, even for fantasy characters. But this gives me a great check list to be sure I observe ALL the relevant “rules.”

See you day‑after‑tomorrow for Sunday’s Snippets!



Filed under Teacher

2 responses to “Tuesday’s Tutor: What’s in a Name?

  1. Glad you liked my article! Thanks for sharing it.

  2. benschwensch

    Elizabeth—I’d like to THANK YOU for noticing! I loved your 7 Rules for naming characters, and found that, intuitively I suppose, I do most of them. But I know that’s not always the case for my writing students or my readers. Thanks for being generous enough to share your ideas with Writer’s Digest, whose Brian Klems then shared it with his online readers! Keep on keepin’ on!

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