*In my first novel I must have changed the name of my protagonist ten times and that’s before I wrote a single word! I finally began the first page with a name I thought would serve my character well. However, I hadn’t really met Sarah yet. As I’ve explained in prior posts, my characters take me on a journey and I have no idea who they’ll become or what they’re going to do until I arrive there. The Wives of Lucifer trilogy complete, I discovered the name didn’t suit her at all. It was too soft, too old-fashioned. I struggled with a new moniker for weeks and finally despaired to the point of involving my closest friends, all having read my entire trilogy. I printed out lists of names for us to sort through over cocktails, as if naming a new baby. Now it’s common knowledge that it’s difficult for parents to agree on a name for their infant, imagine what it was like with four of us under the influence of a pitcher of Gimlets? EVERYONE seemed to have some negative connotation for each name on my list. We’d get close and then someone would throw out an off-hand comment from some movie or book, or personal interaction with her college roommate, and the name would get nixed.
I finally settled on Olivia, and now my fear is that I get an agent who tells me to rename my protagonist. I call her Livy a lot and suddenly this choice of name snowballed. Her best friend was Lily and you can’t have a Livy and a Lily in the same book without making your reader’s eyes cross, so Lily became Kadie. And then there was Otis, and… well, you get the picture. And this leads me to some basic rules for naming characters. Funny, but I recently read a novel where several characters had similar names and it required serious effort to keep them straight. It’s a bestseller and I’m surprised her editor let that pass. Anyway…
1. Avoid names that sound similar or overused. You can’t have Amy, Andy and Alice all in the same book without making your reader go bonkers. Stay away from names that already have a major audience like Harry or Atticus or Jack. Readers have a mindset and you’ll have to work to overcome the stereotype.
2. Avoid getting too exotic. Science fiction names don’t have to be extraterrestrial in their pronunciation, that’s if anyone could pronounce Xditterodl. And I never could wrap my tongue or my mind around Renesme in Twilight. Each and every time it stopped me and I went UGH.
3. Don’t give too many names at once. Your reader has to assimilate the character’s name into his mind, absorb her attributes and speech patterns in order to get hold of her. When this happens it forces the reader to go back and reread pages in order to keep everyone straight, so go slowly. I was once told it takes hearing a character’s name 25 times before it really sticks with you.
4. Don’t name everyone or every place. We needn’t know the name of the laundry lady or the bartender unless there’s a reason. The name of the town or the company he works for is also probably unnecessary, unless New York City or San Francisco is important for your story.
5. Using a nickname is not a great idea. If you choose to do this you must clearly distinguish it. In my first novel, her friends call her Livy but all the grown-ups at her training center are more formal and call her Olivia. Get the pattern straight and adhere to it. On the other hand, parents don’t often called their kids by their formal names unless they are annoyed. The same with lovers. Feel free to rely on generic nicknames like: sweetie, darling, baby, etc.
6. Make note of your time period. Specific names go with specific eras. Do your research. What’s trendy today would be out of place in another country or timeframe. Make sure your names are age appropriate. If your character is an adult make sure the name you chose would have been suitable in the year they were born. You can consult the U.S Social Security Name Popularity List by year.
7. Look up the meaning of your name. You could really make a fool of yourself if you pick a name whose root meaning is loyal and your guy is a traitor. Unless you mean it ironically, but make sure that is your intention. Your character names should reflect their personality to some extend. A Greek-God type character shouldn’t be named Poindexter.
8. Say the name out loud. Read a few passages aloud to see how it sounds. If your book makes it to an audio book will it roll off the tongue well? Will Ashley Lively sound like Ashley Ivy?
9. Cast of characters. Keep the first initial of each character as dissimilar as you can. Also consider the number of syllables and keep them varied. The cadence is as important as the actual name. Consider these three main characters: Olivia, Drew and Kadie. Each has a different number of syllables as well as a different first initial.
10. Maybe sneak in a double meaning. Obviously, Isabella Swan (is a beautiful swan) hints that Bella will emerge from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. This may be too corny, but something you might want to consider.
11. Alliteration. A musical tone to a name can be lyrical. Bilbo Baggins? Severus Snape? Ratso Rizzo? Tess Trueheart? Of course this depends on the tone of your novel and the attributes of the character.
So have fun naming your characters. One of my favorite tricks is to peruse the list of credits at the ends of movies and TV shows. I used this technique while searching for names for my own children. But relax, when naming a character there are no legal ramifications, no birth certificate to complete and no nine-month pregnancy required! Run them by your friends and family, but remember, in the end it’s your baby. And I have it on good authority that you better like her name because if your novel does ever hit The Big Time you’ll be living together until death do you part. Ha! I could only wish…
*Although Robin did a similar post some weeks ago (What’s in a Name?) she focused on naming characters in historical fiction.
Up Next from Caryn: SOMEONE MUST DIE! The Time to Kill