Manage Character Names

When I wrote short stories, I used to laboriously go through baby name books for just the “right” name.  I’d search the entire alphabet for that gender, writing down names I liked until I had a list of about seven.  Then I’d go down the list and start crossing off names until I had the one I wanted.  But with the realties of writing a novel with a large cast, that method went quickly by the wayside.  It’d take too long!  And some of the characters just weren’t that important to spend that amount of time.  But coming up with so many names had its own minuses, and I had to learn how to manage all of them:

1. Keep a list of the names.  Especially during the first draft, I have a hard time remembering some of the names, or remembering how to spell some of them.  But I don’t work well with complex systems like character worksheets, notebooks, etc.  So I keep a very simple list–a spreadsheet with columns for last name, first name, and role.  The spreadsheet does double duty with another tab for place names and everything is color coded.

Why not just put all the names in one column instead of dividing them up by last name?  Splitting up the names allows me to sort the names different ways and makes it easier to catch similar names.

2. The main character doesn’t share. I always end up with some characters in the same letter family–it’s unavoidable with a cast of 30, given there are only 26 letters in the alphabet.  So I have a basic guideline that none of the characters will be in the same letter family as the main character.

3. Minor characters share. Since they don’t have a major role, minor characters can share the same letter family.  Though I try not to have them interact–and I stay away from anything that sounds alike, no matter the letter family.  Barry and Jerry–nope, one of them has got to change.

4. Never get too attached. I try not to get too attached to any of the names, except the main characters.  It’s likely I’ll discover I goofed in the naming and have to change it. Right now I’m having to change 99 percent of the names to create a consistent naming scheme.

One thing I don’t agree with is to avoid names ending in S, as Anne Marble on Writing World notes:

This tip sounds trivial, but it can save you a lot of trouble later. If you give a character a name that ends in the letter S, you will have an awkward time of it when you write the possessive form of that name.

I’ve spent my whole life dealing with a last name that ends in S, so this just isn’t that big of a deal.  Besides, it would eliminate a lot of perfectly good names!

What are some of your tips to managing character names?

One thought on “Manage Character Names

  1. These are great tips! I used to create a file folder of character profiles but now I just get confused so keeping a spreadsheet of names seems a lot simpler and easier to maneuver. I also have the problem of getting too attached. I’ll think I’ve found the perfect name and then another sounds so much better, but I’ll refuse to change it because it must be “fate” that I found the other one first. I’m working on it though. 😉


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