You’re Gonna Call Me WHAT? –Picking the Right Name for Your Characters
One thing that drives me crazy as a fiction reader is when an author gives me terrible names for their characters. Too often, I can’t remember one character from the next. I’m thumbing back through the pages with a frown on my face, “Who’s this guy again?”
When I write, I’m very cognizant of my character’s names. Its one of the things I try to get right in a story. I want my names to be iconic or at the very least, memorable.
I take some cues from Larry McMurty and George R.R. Martin. Those fellas really got the name thing figured out. One of the things I noticed they do is they both use nicknames or name their characters unusual or uncommon names. Example: Dish, Newt, Pea Eye, The Hound, Hot Pie. I use this technique a lot.
For me, I want a name that reflects a character’s personality. I’ll switch them without hesitation over the writing process if I feel their name doesn’t go. For example, for my Union officer investigating the mysterious saboteur team, I initially picked the name Lucan. I thought it was a cool name and unusual, but it was a little too tough sounding for me. He’s not a tough guy. If anything, I wanted him to be the character the reader will identify the most with. He’s just a simple dude. I changed it to Lawrence. I wasn’t too fond of that name either. For one, it didn’t stand out enough. Also, it sounded a little too strong. I wanted a name that sounded like someone who may be in a little over his head, perhaps is even intimidated, but goes in bravely anyway. I finally picked the name Oliver. That seemed perfect. Its like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel.
Here are just a few of my rules of thumb I often use when I pick a name:
- Do not give your major characters names that start with the same first letter
- Give your character names different syllables or has two words in their names.
- Pick names that are within your story’s time period (sometimes there are some really unusual historic ones compared to modern day standards and will stand out–ex. Erasmus or Elijah).
- Make sure your characters names do not look similar to each other.
- Your main characters can have normal names, but give your other characters more unusual names or nicknames so they will be remembered more easily.
- Name a character whose name starts with an X, Y, Z, or Q or uses a hyphen. These are unusual for most names and will stand out.
- Name a character whose name is in a different language.
- Don’t make your character’s name hard to pronounce.
- Use the character’s last name instead of the first, particularly if it is a more memorable name.
- Pick names that conjure images of your character’s personality or appearance. Example: Tomato, The Hammer, etc.
How about you guys, you have any techniques for picking names?
WIP Update: Still going. I’m up to about 100,000 words. I’ve barely made a dent in it, folks. This is one helluva big story. I absolutely just had NO idea what I had bitten off here. Anyway. Coming along . . .