The term deep dive is a business term, used to describe an in-depth discussion of a topic. The naming of characters needs a deep dive because it’s such an important aspect of characterization. Yet, everyone talks about it superficially, if at all.
Sometimes writers come up with weird rules like never naming a character with a name ending in S. To me, that one is particularly silly because my last name ends in S. I’ve never had a problem with punctuating my name!
Most commonly, a lot of writers discuss it like they’re naming children. They roam the baby books, looking at the meaning of the names, and picking a name because it has a particular meaning. They assume, somehow, that the reader will pick up on this meaning as part of the characterization.
Characterization is a challenging skill to learn. But picking names by meaning won’t help as much as it seems. The reader is not likely to know the meaning of the name. Maybe if it’s their name, though I couldn’t tell you what mine means. And there’s no guarantee from one baby resource to another that they have the same definition.
Besides, just because the name has this particular meaning doesn’t mean it’s a good name for you to use in the story. For example, Baldwin means “bold/brave friend.” But, while the meaning suggests a sidekick, it doesn’t suggest a character who would run into battle.
The character is also not a child. This is a person in the story who has to be able to make their mark. Their name is the very first identifying tag, or label, for the reader. A tag is a kind of shortcut for the reader so they instantly know who the character is even if they haven’t seen him for a while.
Hollywood uses a lot of tags, most of which are terrible cliches and stereotypes. Bad guys, or heavies, have a certain look. But they work for the strict time limit film and TV impose in quickly establishing for the audience to identify the characters.
In J.D. Robb’s In Death series, Eve Dallas is the main character and has a lot of tags. She’s a police detective, has whiskey-colored eyes, takes her shower at 101 degrees, and drives like a maniac. And this only a few of them that have evolved over this long series. But her name is the first, and most obvious, tag.
When I took Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel in 2010, she described character names as a promise to the reader. She developed her system of identifying potential problems with character names because she hung too much of a lantern on a character she viewed as unimportant.
Then, it was an interesting way for me to think about character names. She assigned points, depending on the number of names a single character had.
It made me look at my more minor characters. You know, the walk-ons. I was giving them more emphasis, curiously, than my major characters. Not sure why I did it like that. Naming characters is definitely about balance, though a points system like the above doesn’t make up for balancing all the character and story elements so the reader knows instinctively this guy isn’t hanging around.
In J.D. Robb’s Golden in Death, the story opens with a character with a first and last name, and a title. Yet, for this three-point name (the title is another point), we will know from how the character is handled in the scene that he is going to die.
Still, a name as a promise carries weight. If you write a romance novel, both your male and female character names should carry a romantic promise. Calling the male character Adolf doesn’t have much of an alluring romantic promise. I’ve read some romances that had me scratching my head at the choice of the female character.
If you’re writing an action-packed thriller, you won’t want a mousey sort of name for your lead character. That wouldn’t work in a mystery either. And I don’t know about you, but I was frustrated by fantasy in the 1980s—names were apostrophed to death or sounded like they’d been picked out of a hat. Readers need to be able to pronounce the name, not stumble over every time it turns up.
(Aside: I got so disgusted with the fantasy novel names that I wrote a story with names plucked from a baby name book. The first reader rejected it for the names! It was a fair rejection. I should have at least made sure they all came from the same origin😊 ).
Lawrence Block devotes an entire chapter to naming characters in his book Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. He notes to avoid common names because they won’t be memorable to the reader. If you think about it, you’ve probably never seen a character named Smith, Johnson, Miller, or Brown. Probably not Adams either!
Certain first names also might be a little too ordinary…John, Jane, Bob. Real people have these names, but they don’t particularly stand out for a character.
Common names are particularly problematic if the rest of the characterization is flat. I read a historical novel about pre-Special Forces, set during World War II. There were three main characters (a problem in itself, but that’s for another time). Two started with the same letter. None of the names were particularly memorable, and neither were the characters. Every time the author switched scenes, I had to think, “This is the guy who hates his father,” or whatever I was trying to associate with that character.
So character names should be a little extraordinary. Your main character’s name should be the most extraordinary. After all, you don’t want a minor character’s name outshining your main character!
The actual name should say something about your character without veering into cutesy or obvious. This is harder than it sounds. I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was a lot of fun having a character with a name that sounds like an airhead. But I’m not sure it would have worked as well as a novel (I’m referring to that instead of a TV series since I know there are TV tie-ins). The name would be with the reader much longer than an hour-long show since reader time can vary quite a bit.
Adding to the problem of picking names is that some types of novels lend themselves to a lot of characters. If you write an epic fantasy or a thriller, you may have over a hundred names. (And don’t get me started on cast lists. If the author has to provide character lists to help the reader, they haven’t done tags or characterization well.)
If you read the J.D. Robb series, the author has such a large, floating cast that she used a name twice. I’m pretty sure this was an accident, but she fixed it in a fun way. One is Detective Carmichael and the other is Uniform Carmichael—and that’s how the characters refer to them. This reminded me of when I was in the Army at Fort Lewis. We had two men named Shipley; one was a sergeant (E-5) and quite tall. The other was a staff sergeant (E-6) and shorter than me. It wouldn’t have been a good idea to refer to them as the short Shipley and the tall Shipley, so they became, “Sergeant Shipley E-6 type” and “Sergeant Shipley E-5 type.”
Wen Spencer recommended—many years ago—on her blog to make a list of the alphabet and use that to avoid duplicating names in letters of the alphabet, as well as duplication like the one above. I thought this was confusing at best because all your characters will have first and last names, and it’s easy to start second-guessing.
Yet, I can also see how it would flag other types of problems. In one book (one of the original versions of Rogue God), I had three characters with similar-sounding names. Two were in the same letter family, and one was in a different letter family but sounded like one of the other two names. Ugh.
But if you have a novel with a huge cast, you’ll run out of letters pretty fast. Besides, there are some letters that if you use them, careful thought should be given to that name. Q, for example, is not a common letter to start any name, so it’s going to stand out more.
So I started with a basic rule of thumb:
No one poaches on the main character’s name.
After that, you can do things like make sure that if you do have ones in the same letter family:
- They don’t sound alike (i.e. Jake and Jack)
- They don’t look alike visually on the page (which Jake and Jack do)
- They aren’t in the same scenes as the other name.
- Hang other tags on them early and every time they appear on the scene to anchor the reader. So mention the guy running his hand through his red hair or his rumpled suit (that’s a tag for Feeney in J.D. Robb).
Finding names is always a challenge, though. I used to get baby name books, but they’ve gotten bloated with every name possible. Most of them probably aren’t good for fiction. Judging from what I see when I read, most names stay with a far more narrow standard.
Then there’s last names. I find those hard to find. People have recommended using a phone book, but again too many choices, many not appropriate. Besides, who gets a phone book anymore?
But we all run across names everywhere. Might be in the credits of an old TV show. I attended a virtual conference and looked at the names of the participants. That’s how I named Gunnery Sergeant Bullmaster. That was a first name, but I thought it was a perfect last name for a Marine (ooh-rah!).
So a name bank is a great way to store random names you run across. You can have separate categories for first names, last names, and even pet names. That’ll work in a spreadsheet, or a Word document. Even index cards. I keep mine in The Brain (which is becoming something incredibly useful).
Avoid any names that are words you might use in your novel. This is just a good practice because if you decided to change “Reed” to “Marotta” (as I did in Crying Planet), you may find unexpected search and replace results in the middle of words. I’m always about not making extra work for myself, and this was a pain to fix!
It can be a lot of fun collecting names. What’s been your pet peeves for how writers name their characters?
I have a notebook for names; I get a lot of ethnic names from the Olympics, btw. I check them off so I don’t repeat them. And TV credits are a great source.
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Hi, Pagadan. Yeah, that’s important to check them off. It’s terribly easy to lose track!
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I realized one day that some of my heroines’ names were similar.
Yep- naming characters is kinda of like naming children
None of my character’s names came from me looking through a baby book or online- some of them actually were invented myself.
Tale of the Cattail Forest names: well, you have Fairy Frogs and Toads. So, I think I made it obvious who was which
1. Sparkle- my main character (her name has to do with the color of her eyes)
3. Aries- yep, sounds like the name of a leader
7. Tweetsie- of all the Fairy Frog names, hers’ sounds young (I mean, she is the youngest)
8. Sarge- his name sounded like a leader and kind of antagonistic
9. Marge- makes sense for Sarge’s cousin to have this spelling
Lizzy the Lizard- obviously, you know who the main character is
Greatest Discovery names- still at development: will put the major characters in pairs; only those names
1. Emily and Rosie- their names sound young
2. Aurora and Jasmine- come from Artsy and Disney-loving parents
3. Paige and Mollie- of all the names I created, those sound the oldest
Ayra’s Story (still has no proper title)- I want to get pretty creative with the names here, as it is set in in expansive world: still haven’t figured out all the character names
1. Ayra (main character(
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Fantasy is a great place to make up names, Meg. A lot of names originated that way because they had to come from somewhere!
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One of the best parts about the fantasy world!!
Similar to Pagadan above, I check rosters of national football (soccer, for us Americans) teams for ethnic names.
My favorite ROFL-character name came in an urban/contemporary fantasy. The first-person female narrator referred to her love interest as Cubby. I looked up at my husband and said, “Three pages in, and I’ve found a character who’s about to get dumped or dead. Cubby is not a name for a love interest.”
What I’ve noticed is that I develop a fondness for names beginning with a particular letter – B, perhaps, or K; it varies with the project – so I go back and make sure those names are either not confusing or changed if they are.
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Hi, Peggy. I’ve had the same problem with K and J. I guess, because they’re not as common, they look more interesting!
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