Writing: What’s in a Character Name?

I often see social media posts from writers, asking for suggestions on character names. Here are some tips.

Writing Tip for Today: When you name your fictional characters, what should you take into consideration?

Cast of Thousands

Often, novel writers have large casts in their novels. While it’s tempting (and sometimes comforting) to name every single person who walks onto your fictional stage, try to restrain yourself. Limit named characters to those with significant parts to play.

Readers are likely to remember your characters for what they say and do, not because they have a name. If you’ve ever been to a large gathering where strangers are introducing themselves, you know how difficult it is to remember names. This is true for novels, too. Some writers limit named characters to those with speaking parts or more than a brief encounter with the protagonist.

To better serve readers, imagine yourself as one. Whose names will readers be likely to remember? And more importantly, why will they remember characters’ names? Try to introduce new character names slowly, to give readers a better chance to associate a name with a character.

Alliterations, Oddities, Oh no!

Avoid naming characters with the same alphabetic letter. If you have characters named Amy, Arthur, Allen and Annie, readers could become confused. Vary the first letter or pronunciation so your readers will be more apt to remember each person.

Some writers also create secondary or supporting characters with odd-sounding names. While an unusual name may give your story a certain regional flavor, be careful not to allow a stand-out name on a supporting character to upstage your protagonist. And steer clear of hard to pronounce character names–readers will either read them as “$#%@” or stumble over that moniker.

At the same time, I think the reading world is divided on authors who give long or odd names to their protagonists, only to end the sentence with “but everyone calls me ‘shorty’” or some diminutive of the longer handle. I think it’s a bit irritating. Why go to all the trouble of saddling a character with a long name only to then tell readers to think of that character as whatever nickname they’ve chosen. Maybe I’m too grumpy, but I think it only works for coming of age or children’s stories.

Match character names to their owners’ personalities, historical era or region.

The Weight of a Name

We’re all familiar with iconic names from beloved novels. Who could imagine “Call me Fred” instead of Ishmael? When you name your characters, consider that person’s background, social status and region. Historical writers know to thoroughly research popular names of the era when their story is set. And if you are writing in the first-person point-of-view, readers may not even care what the narrator’s is named.

If you write memoir, you may need to change names to protect the innocent (or guilty). When I write about my life, I find it helpful to insert the real names of characters from life—but I then change them in the final drafts. When I write, the characters’ true names help evoke deep emotion for me. Yet I don’t want to be sued or written out of the will, so I later change them to protect everyone.

Whatever you name your characters, you want readers to feel as if the name you’ve given is the perfect one, a name that couldn’t be anything else. Consider naming characters in a symbolic way that’s not obvious, so that you add a layer of meaning to your novel. Go ahead and ask for suggestions for character names. But in the end, name your characters based on their region, their personalities and your own gut feelings.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

3 comments on “Writing: What’s in a Character Name?

  1. Myself being old school. by the time you write something with everything that’s they say is supposed to be there you’re wondering where you left off, I wrote a story once and sure enough someone tried to pick it apart. I had to raise my voice and say LET IT GO ALREADY ENOUGH IT’S A STORY, I myself think everything. is out of Wack, By the way you have a pretty smile. now don’t try to make it something else just kidding you take care.

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