What’s In a Name? –The Art of Naming Characters

Naming a character is a lot like naming a baby. You want the name to be memorable, different, but not too different, likable and fit the person you’re writing about. If you’re anything like me, this could be a near impossible task and endlessly frustrating for those around you. Especially if you decide halfway through the novel that the name is all wrong.

For all the angst authors can go through in choosing a character’s name, it’s amazing to us how often we see names that immediately set our teeth on edge for various reasons.

So from an agent’s perspective, here are some thoughts on naming your character.

1. Avoid alliteration. It’s confusing enough that your best friend named her kids Melanie, Michael and Maddie. Don’t do that to your readers. At least with living people I have a visual to tell them apart. In a book, especially when I’m still getting to know the characters, those alliterations can become endlessly confusing.

2. Avoid rhyming or similar sounding names. Just as above, it’s confusing when you have an Aiden, a Jayden and a Jay. While this could all easily happen in real life, and does if you know any kids around the age of 8, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

3. Watch out for names in the news. It’s going to be a long time before Katrina is a name that can easily be used in fiction. Even if you wrote your book well before the storm, you might need to consider changing the name to fit changing times. Obviously nothing can be done for already published books, but remember, you’re trying to get the attention of agents and editors and any sort of distraction is best to be avoided.

4. If it can be helped, try not to kill off your agent or editor. This is less worrisome to querying authors, but no agent wants to read a client’s manuscript only to discover that the first victim of a gruesome murder happens to have the same name she does. We get easily spooked too.

5. And while we’re on the topic of using an agent’s name…it does creep us out a little when reading your sex manual to learn that the entire book is about pleasuring [insert agent’s name here]. *it’s been done.

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5 comments

  1. Okay, I’m laughing out loud here after a name issue with a recently published book. The problem is, my characters come to me with their names. It’s not an arbitrary choice I make, but it does occasionally get me in trouble. When I wrote Intimate, the first book in my Intimate Relations series, my hero’s name was Cameron. I “knew” him as Cameron, or Cam as the heroine calls him. Unfortunately, Cam is a photographer. Can you see where I’m going with this? Cam…camera? I honestly DID NOT SEE the problem. Cam was this really sexy but sensitive guy, until my editor insisted I change his name. I rebelled, (mostly silently, thank goodness) because it wasn’t long before I had a “head/desk” moment when it suddenly clicked that Cameron/camera was not going to work. The thing is, as an author, I see my characters fully formed, I hear their voices when they’re speaking, I’m inside their heads when they’re thinking. I don’t get confused by their names. But then the oddest thing happened when I changed Cameron’s name to Jacob. (Not my first choice, but I couldn’t think of anything else so my editor sent me a list of names and orders to choose one. Now. But she was very nice about it…) Jacob, ie: Jake, was not the same man as Cameron. Slightly different voice, his walk was different, his attitude did a huge change, to the point where I had to rewrite large sections of the story, but it taught me a lesson.

    I know my characters and can tell them apart, but it’s not as easy for my readers unless I make them completely unique. In Cameron’s case, I failed badly. And, for what it’s worth, Jake was a much better photographer.

  2. I spent a long time picking names. I’m not 100% happy with my hero’s full name but I love the shortened version and his full name is only used once.

    I do have a twins both starting with a B, they are soldiers together and have built their twin bond so strong they they can shadow each other without speaking and often finish each others statements (not sentences). More they are used to giving reports together and it’s devolved into everyday life. It fits them, they are so alike at first meeting, but so very very different.

    There are a few names I’m not sure about, but I’m also thinking of un-naming some of the fringe characters.

  3. I chose a common name for the time my heroine was born – Rachel – and then queried three agents called Rachel. I did wonder if the sex scenes might creep them out a little!

  4. I write epic fantasy, and one of the common problems in SFF is writers trying too hard to come up with a “different” or “exotic” name. I’ve critiqued a lot of work by aspiring authors and seen names that were literally unpronounceable by human mouths.

    The excuse from the writer was always, “But he’s not human!”

    Yeah, but your readers are. Not saying your space alien should be named “Bob”, but “Xty’a’kksl” looks like the sound of a cat coughing up a hairball. Which I guess is okay if that’s the image you want associated with your character.

    Great post, Jessica. I’ve changed several characters’ names when I realized they were alliterative. I have a horrible time distinguishing characters with similar sounding names in other writers’ work, I don’t know how I let it creep into my own.

  5. When I started my current WIP, I agonized over the names. I spent days thinking about the exact meaning, and deriving them from root words of the civilizations that inspired my world.

    Then my beta readers pointed out that the names were hard to tell apart because they were alliterative.

    I was kind of relieved, because I felt like the names were too much to live up to, in a way. They had so much meaning they were weighing down the characters and the story.

    I had recently reworked the world extensively, and in less than an hour I renamed the four most important characters. They are still intentional, but not a secret code into the character’s inner life.

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