Thursday, March 10, 2016

Tips on Naming Characters

by Jackie King

Finding that just-right name for the people in your story gives you a head-start in finding and keeping a publisher and an audience.

Names for characters come to me in two ways: instantaneous and easy, or slow and tedious. Sometimes when the idea for a book appears in my mind, the name of the main character walks in the door with it. Other times it takes me weeks or months to come up with the right moniker.

I’m currently working on a novel and the villain’s name isn’t quite right. I’ve already changed it once, and this choice is better. Still, I keep probing my brain for one that completely suits. The working name for the character is a sort of “dofer” to use while I keep writing the book.

Getting that just right name is crucial. Character names must come from the right historical period. If you name a female character Madison or Hailey, and the story is set in 1889, your lover-of-historical-fiction might throw your book across the room before they finish chapter one.

Where to start when you’re stuck?
What year was your character born? Make sure the character’s name fits the year he/she was born. If nothing strikes your fancy, you can always use a classical name in eras. Elizabeth, Victoria, Jacob, or Matthew would fit 1889 or 2016.

Biblical names also work for most any year of birth. Sarah, Mary, Luke or Mark, have been popular birth names in most periods. Currently unusual biblical names are being used, especially when you use a nickname. Zachariah is currently popular and is often shortened to Zach or Zack.

Google It
Figure out the year your character would have been born. Go to Google, my favorite search engine and key in: “Baby names popular in 1979” and up pops 100 names for babies born in that year. Both boys and girls are listed in the order of popularity.

Use this list to find the name that best suits the person you have created. Speak the names out loud. Imagine the character’s parents struggling over the choice or arguing about the name. Sometimes this can even be worked into the plot of the story.

What to avoid?
Avoid names that are too long and names that begin with the same letter, such as Jacob, John, Jackie, Jessica, Jeff, and Jennifer, all in the same tale.

Names that end with the letter “S,” will muddle the use of possessive nouns, as I learned when I named a character Mavis. This isn’t something that would cause an editor to reject the book, but it does complicate the writer’s life (and the reader’s) in an unnecessary way. Mavis’ car seems more complicated than Sandra’s car.

Don’t use cute spellings. Even if you know someone who spells her name Marylyn, it’s still better to use “Marilyn.” Oddly spelled names can detract the reader from the story. The point is to keep folks reading, not cause them to stop and ponder something that has nothing to do with the character or plot.

Final advice on naming characters.
That infamous rule of writing, “There are no rules,” always stands. If you have a good enough reason to name a character something weird—do it with my blessing.


Bill Kirton said...

Good advice, Jackie. There are apps now that generate random names. I have one on my iPad. I just tapped on it, shook the iPad (to simulate shaking dice) and got 'Drake Callaghan'. Not as scientific as your way but a lot quicker.

Jackie King said...

Didn't know about the app! Now I need an iPad and that app! Love the name Drake Callaghan!

Jean Henry Mead said...

Good article, Jackie. I couldn't comment sooner due to eye surgery.

Jackie King said...

Thanks, Jean. Hope your eye is healing nicely.