There are several schools of thought on naming characters. Some say to name your characters names that are common every day names. Others say to name them special names that will stick in your readers’ heads. Still others tell you to always use name books and find the exact meaning of each of your characters names, while others say it doesn’t matter.
Being a writer for over a decade now, I know a thing or two about characters and naming them. I have had such name mistakes as Anna, Annaleigh, Anna Lee and Annabelle in the same story, as the same character (She was an orphan that preferred to change her name with every new person she lived with; I was thirteen and thought it added depth to her character, and a plot obstacle apparently), characters with such “out there” names as Blodwyn and Kendrick and Dr. Sweetcheeks McGee (ok, that last one was because I was crunched for time during NaNoWriMo), and last but not least, characters with full names every mention such as Timothy Jameson Weatherly and Nurse Kate Cooper. I am more than qualified to tell you how not to name characters.
So how do you know what to do and not to do when naming characters? How do you navigate all of the advice and tips floating around the Internet and Writing Self-Help?
Here’s the advice that works best for me.
Have Varying Letters and Lengths
If you are writing a story with Joe, Jim, Jon and Jen, your readers might have a problem distinguishing your characters from one another. If Joe and Jim are roommates and Joe is Jon’s brother, who is dating Jen, but Jen is sleeping with Joe on Tuesdays and Jim on Saturdays, your readers will be confused. Likewise, if you have Sarah, Steve, Stacy and Steph. This is due to the way we read and interpret words.
Remember when you were a kid and learning to read? How you would focus on every letter to sound out words? How often do you do that now? Rarely, right? This is because the more you read, the less you focus on deciphering the words and the more your eye focuses on the general shape. If you have character names with the same letters and lengths, the reader will not necessarily read the right names in the right spots.
The fix is easy though. Vary the letters used and the lengths of names. Instead of Barry, Barney, Benny and Bart, try Steph, Barry, Dan, and Patricia. This makes it much easier on the reader, and you as the writer.
Have Some Uniqueness
When you name characters Bob Smith, Joe Brown and Jim Jones, you are robbing your characters of the chance to have unique names. Close your eyes and imagine what image comes to mind when you think of characters with those names. I don’t know about you, but I think office clone, living in a cubicle, with no interesting qualities. If this is your aim as a writer, perfect. If not, well, there are easy changes to make.
You can name your characters basic names like Jim, Joe and Bob, or use last names like Smith, Jones and Brown, but don’t use them together. Or if you do use them together, use them as a placeholder until you find better names in edits. Instead of Bob Smith, use Bob Kowalski, or Bob Lycster. If you want to use a common last name like Smith, combine it with a less common first name, like Hazel or Bridgetta. Or you vould even change the spelling of common names for a little more zest. Vary it up and your readers will thank you.
Pick Your Initials Carefully
This one should be self explanatory, but you would be surprised how easy it is to not think about it. I have had characters with the initials A.S.S. more than once, usually by marriage, or E.W. for the initials of a first and last name. While these are not the worst of errors when naming characters, it is important to consider when naming characters, or even a set of characters.
If Anna Sarah Wiley is going to marry Samuel Sands, you should probably change one or both names, unless your purpose is to make an ass of your character. Likewise, if you have first and last name with the initials E.W. such as Eric West, add a middle name. It won’t always work, unless you have a reason for using the character’s full name, but it will help. Eric West becomes Eric Richard West.
It’s best to avoid naming blunders with initials, but they can be augmented if you are set on certain names.
Name your Characters the Same Name, or Variations of the Same Name
In the example above with Anna, Annaleigh, Anna Lee and Annabelle, it definitely confuses the reader. Yes, it is the same character, and yes, she does change her name a lot, but this does not excuse the fact that your readers will probably be annoyed with you. If your character has to change names (which I would use with caution, unless you are writing a spy/espionage piece), use varying identities. Your writing should not be like the comics “Oh, you have glasses on, you’re Clark Kent today”; in writing that would be “Oh, you changed one letter that augments the pronunciation, you are obviously not Anna Lee”. Do your readers a favor and vary it more than just a few letters.
Have too Many Apostrophes or Unique Characters
This applies to you fantasy writers mostly, but has basis in all writing. Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t name your character An’que’mon’lea or Reñńøldâ. The first example is semi ok, if you shorten it to a nickname and use the full name sparingly, but the second is just asking for trouble. Your readers will spend more time trying to pronounce it than reading your work, and you want people to read your book. Instead, use unique characters and apostrophes carefully.
My general rule is one special character or apostrophe per name, or even per piece. Too much of a good thing can get confusing.
Use Too Many Names
This is a your mileage may vary tip. If your story calls for it, if your character’s culture calls for multiple names, or they are royalty, go ahead and use a lot of names, just not everytime your character is mentioned. Once or twice, sure. But not every time. Shorten Maria Renee Kathetine Reynaud De Espinosa Coorezando to Maria or Marie.
This will add word count if you are focusing on count and not content, but multiple names are a pain in the ass to type out every single time.
So there you have it. Some tips on naming characters. As always, these are not rules, more guidelines. If your piece calls for or a long name, or similar names, or any of the above rules, by all means, go for it.