Naming Your Characters

I was talking to a budding author a few weeks ago and she mentioned the trouble she was having coming up with names for the characters in the mystery she’s writing.

Every author should have a “Good Ideas” folder.  Whenever you think of an interesting scenario, write it on the notepad you should never go anywhere without and, when you get home, stick it in the “Good Ideas” file.  If you sitting in a waiting room or at the airport or anywhere else where people are congregated, pick out someone by their looks, or their clothes, or behavior, and describe them in your notepad.  Another sheet for “Good Ideas.”

The same holds true for names.  If you see one that sounds catchy, or interesting, or unusual, write it down and save it. 

Names are everywhere.  Think about people you’ve worked with, or who were classmates in school.  Go through the phone book or high school annuals.  Watch the credits at the end of movies—not for the stars, but when all the other names roll up, like the key grip, dolly boy, and wrangler.

Unless the name is very common, rarely will you use the name of a real person, but just mix up the first and last names from your ideas list, or change the spelling.  “Gail” to  “Gayle,” or Smith to Smythe.

Here are some other hints.

All your main characters should have different names that don’t rhyme or begin with the same letter, i.e. Jack and Rose, not Jack and Jane; Bill and Mary, not Larry (or Barry, Cary, Harry, Jerry) and Mary.

Don’t be afraid to use less common names, e.g., Stanley and Iris; Franny and Zooey.

If you’re going to use a certain name as a signal to the character’s ethnicity, spell it right, e.g. José, Jesús, Johahn.  Did you mean Seamus (actually Séamus), Gaelic for James, and not Shamus, Yiddish for handyman, or slang for a detective?  In Ireland it’s Brigid, but in France and Germany they use Brigitte.

What is the time period of your novel?  You’ll want to pick first names, at least, consistent with that era.  You can find the top twenty baby names (boys and girls) for the last several decades by doing a Google search.

Finally, remember, that minor characters, those who only appear in one or two “scenes” seldom need names and can be distinguished, instead, by their occupation: the maid, the bus driver, the UPS man, the crossing guard.  If there are several of those workers in minor roles, then an adjective, rather than a name, may suffice, e.g. the burly firefighter and the rookie firefighter.

I had lunch with an author and we discussed one of his books published over a decade earlier, which I had just read.  I was amazed that he could instantly recall the names of all the characters.  Then it dawned on me.  He had created them!  He knew them like he knew his own children.

Names are people’s most personal possession.  They’re as important for your characters.  Think of the books you have read and how many characters’ names you still remember.  Spend some time choosing them .  After the plot, your readers will most likely remember the names of your hero/heroine, love interest, and villain.

UPDATE!  The July 10th issue of PARADE magazine had an interview with author John Grisham.  When describing what it’s like inside the outbuilding he uses as his writing room, he said, “I also got my favorite book.  It has 10,000 baby names.  Every novel’s got 200 or 300 names, so I’m always looking.”   (Well, unless you’re Elio Garcia.  His novel A Song of Ice and Fire has over 1,000 named characters!)   

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