I imagine most people are familiar with William Shakespeare’s famous quote:
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Even if you haven’t read Romeo and Juliet, you’ve probably heard some version of this at some point. Juliet’s point was that names don’t really matter, but I disagree. Names definitely DO matter. If they didn’t, why would people spend months agonizing over what to name to their children? With the use of ultrasound, it’s gotten so that the sex of the baby is no big secret. The real excitement comes when the proud parents reveal the name to the world. Names are so important that publishing companies spend millions of dollars compiling baby name books and advertising gurus make millions off of creating the right name for a product. There’s also those famous last words of any conscientious parent before their child leaves the house, “Remember who you are!” Names are important to us; they are a label that says something about us.
One of the reasons I love writing is because I love names. I only have three children which means out of all the thousands–millions perhaps–of names out there, I could only reasonably use six (I’m not a fan of five “middle” names; one is good). I don’t even have any pets to name. So what’s a girl to do who spent her youth dreaming of all the names she’d one day foist off on her children? What else…write them.
Names of characters are just as important as the real people in our lives, so it it goes without saying that as writers we need to get them right. Using the wrong names can turn a reader off quickly (Crime and Punishment?). The wrong name can ruin a great story (Can you imagine Hortense of Green Gables?). The following is my own personal list of do’s and don’ts for finding the perfect name for those imaginary friends we call characters:
1. Originality is good, creativity is not. We like to think that our character is someone new, never been written about before, and for that reason, they need an original name. Great. Search through those baby name books and find one that appeals to you, maybe one you haven’t heard for a while. You probably should stay away from the top ten list. But once you find that original name, stick to the original or traditional spelling. Just like reality, creatively spelled names are annoying. I once had a friend named Lisa who joked about how unoriginal her name was. She said she wished her parents would have at least spelled it different–she was hoping for M-X-J-Q–and when all of her teachers called role she wanted the pleasure of saying, “It’s pronounced Lisa.” True, you can spell a name any way you want and it won’t change what you call someone, but when you are reading and a really great character’s name keeps tripping you up, no matter how much you like the character, you’re bound to hold their name against them to some degree.
2. Stay away from foreign names that no one can pronounce. Again, it trips up the reader and slows down the story. Tolstoy was a great writer, but I don’t anxiously pull out my Kindle while I’m waiting somewhere in order to read his stuff–and a lot of that’s because of the names. Granted he is actually Russian and so are his characters, but it’s so much easier when he gave them nicknames that even us Americans can pronounce. If you have a foreign character try picking a foreign name that isn’t quite so “foreign,” and maybe makes sense phonetically.
3. Don’t use stereotypical names–unless you’re going for stereotype. If you have a real hunky guy as your hero, don’t name him Rocky. And that nerd? Yeah, Steven Erkel went out with the eighties. If your characters are real to you, give them “real” names. Don’t let their name define them if that’s not who they are.
4. If you want to use an unusual name, think about tying it into the story. Let the readers know why their name is unique. It will give depth to the character. I love places as names; London, Ireland, Phoenix, Memphis…my own daughter’s name is America. In my first novel the entire family is named after places–for a reason. I was able to make that a part of my character’s identity and motivation. And even though one of the names was really not my favorite–nor my readers’–I couldn’t change it because that’s just who he was.
5. Don’t use names of people you know as villains or in any derogatory way. It’s never a good idea to take the name of your next door neighbor whose dog keeps using your lawn as a latrine and turn them into the “Poop Monster.” Even family names can be tricky, especially if you plan to kill that character or let them die tragically. That person may just read your work one day and think you have ulterior motives. Just be careful, you can’t afford to do things unintentionally.
6. Stick to the name. If you give a character a name, don’t give them a completely unrelated nickname and then switch back and forth. This is confusing!!! If you want them to be the nickname, don’t confuse the reader with their “real” name, just use the nickname. Example: Scout. Most readers are familiar with this precocious little girl from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. She isn’t anyone else–no one knows who Jean Louise Finch is. Lee introduced her name, but then left it alone and stuck to one name for the rest of the novel.
7. Avoid using multiple characters with the same name. This is pretty typical of English historical novels–we all love you Jane Austen–but it can slow a reader down when they are trying to remember who’s who. Even if there is a familial reason for the same name, think about using a nickname: Edward and Eddie, Robert and Bob, Lucinda and Lucy…I could go on, but you get the point.
8. Strong name–strong character. Weak name–weak character. Need I say more. However, don’t use celebrity names. George Washington was a great man, but your thirteen year old superhero will never live up to that reputation. You may be a fan of Katy Perry, but your reader may think she stinks, not to mention her questionable moral standards.
Do you have a favorite character’s name? What do you love about it?