Tips, Writing

WTN: Character Names

Great character development makes or breaks a book. I mean that in both ways that sentence can be read. Readers will forgive some things, but they will never tolerate pale, wishy-washy, cardboard characters. Characters have to be great. Character development has to be strong.

This week I’m starting a four-part series on character development. We’re starting simple: those all-important character names.

Choose names very carefully. Pay attention to the meaning and the sound, and to connotations that people will give a name. ~Elizabeth George, mystery writer

Give each character a unique name

  • Our character list should contains a mixture of starting letters for both first and last names, sounds, number of syllables, and in some cases, ethnic origins.
  • Having characters named Brian, Ben, Betty, and Barbara in the same book will be confusing to the readers.
  • So will having Mr. Morgan, Ms. Michael, Mrs. Morton, and Dr. Maliche.
  • It’s not just first initials that trip readers. Similar endings such as four friends named Macy, Stacey, Tracie, and Dulce isn’t a good idea, either.
  • Tim, Bob, Sam, and Ann is not an inspired cast of characters.
  • Limit the number of names and titles referring to one character. For example, a character named William Smith, should not be referred to as William, Bill, Billy, Willy, Willy-Boy, Mr. Smith, the Boss, and Old Red-Face by different characters.

Names shouldn’t antagonize the reader

Sometimes references to physical characteristics are used for characters whose names aren’t known to the protagonists. Our heroine might notice that the man trying to shove her into a large black car has terrible breath. She refers to him as Halitosis. It’s a quick fix, and at least it gives a way to refer to the character, but be advised that some readers hate this.

If there is more than one character sharing the same descriptive title—several doctors, or priests, or detectives—give each character a unique character sketch so that Father Jones won’t be confused with Father Rafael or Father Whitcombe.

Unless dealing with a turning point, where a previously unknown connection between two characters is revealed—for example, when detective learns that a suspect’s maiden name is the same as a murder victim last name—make it clear immediately how characters with the same last name are related, or if using name confusion as a plot device, that they are not related but frequently confused.

Welcome the World

We are a multi-cultural society, and our character lists are growing more multi-cultural, too. Suppose I need to name a character who was born in Ghana. Searches for common ghanaian names and common ghanaian last names will at least give me a starting point. One of the sites said that Ghanaians popularly name their children with names related to the day of the week the child is born. From another site I found last names for prominent Ghanaians. From those two sites, I tentatively decide to name my character Abena Lartey.

Warning —Names on the Internet — There are a huge number of naming sites on the Internet. Many are a quick compilation, with absolutely no accuracy, and in some cases as fanciful as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings names. Never use the Internet as your sole reference.

What I would do with my Ghanaian character is to find someone from Ghana and ask them if Abena Lartey was a reasonable name for a woman from Accra, the capital of Ghana? Have I accidentally named her after anyone famous or notorious from Ghana? Have I unintentionally violated a cultural taboo? Perhaps there is a reason that the Lartey family never name their children Abena. Names can be more complicated than you think.

Using real people as characters

Do a quick Internet search for each character name to make sure we haven’t inadvertently used a famous name. We may not recognize Colin Kaepernick, but readers who  know football will recognize the San Francisco 49er’s quarterback. Does that mean we can’t use Colin’s name? I’d have second thoughts about it if Colin was my killer or portrayed in a negative way. And it might be just as simple to change the character’s name to Charles Kaepernick.

While we’re at it, we also need to check out the name of any business we create. Delta Construction and Siding is a real Calgary company. If I’m writing a story set in Calgary, that matters. If I’m writing a story set in Cleveland, and there isn’t a similarly named company there, it matters less.

Does this mean we can’t use real people/businesses? They’re famous so anything goes is a myth. No matter what’s happening in the real world, that doesn’t translate to giving us permission to use a celebrity in any way we choose. Yes, we can use real people, but also yes, they can bring legal proceedings against us if they don’t like what we write.

Authors sometimes make friends or co-workers characters, or offer appearance in a book as a prize. Any time we intentionally use the name of a person we know, we must get written permission from them. And we need to give them an idea of how they will be represented. My best friend might be delighted to know she’s the perky owner of the coffee shop where my protagonist has breakfast every morning, but less thrilled to be portrayed as a homeless drug addict.

Don’t make more work for ourselves than absolutely necessary

As authors, we have to type characters’ names thousands of times. I wrote a character recently with the last name of Reid. Remember the old rule: i before e except after c? Clearly this name violated that rule. Every time I thought of that rule I misspelled the character’s name. Sometimes I misspelled it Reed. That short name gave me so much trouble that half-way through the book, I changed it.

First or last names ending with s are also difficult to manage when it comes to possessives, and the rules are changing. For my character James Snograss, it is James’ alibi or James’s alibi? Did Mr. Snograss’ boss or Mr. Snograss’s boss say he was in meetings all Tuesday? It will depend on which rules our eventual publisher wants us to use, so when I use names ending in s, I know ahead of time that I might have to edit the final manuscript to make it consistent with what my publisher wants.

It’s embarrassing when an author can’t pronounce the name of her characters. We need to look ahead to our public readings by saying each character’s name out loud to make sure that they all flow trippingly from our tongue. And also to make sure we haven’t inadvertently created a double-entendre name. Say Lotta Beaver aloud, and you’ll see what I mean.

Take Away

Start a character chart. I use five columns: first name, last name, age, birth year, and jobs. Hmm, I seem to already have two characters whose last name begins with P. Wonder if I should do something about that?

Sample of character chart

Sample of character chart

We’ll talk more about the importance of age, birth year, and jobs in later character development blogs. The first two columns are a good way to check for name similarity. I use a simple rule: no character first or last names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, unless that multiple-use has a significance. For example, it wouldn’t be unusual to have twins whose first names begin with the same letter.

On Thursday, March 6, I’ll bust some writing and writer myths.

Next Tuesday, March 11, Character Development, Part 1 — The Starter Kit

I hope to see you back for both.