An Aspiring Writer's Blog Site

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:

  1. Do not give your major characters names that start with the same first letter
  2. Give your character names different syllables or has two words in their names.
  3. 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).
  4. Make sure your characters names do not look similar to each other.
  5. Your main characters can have normal names, but give your other characters more unusual names or nicknames so they will be remembered more easily.
  6. 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.
  7. Name a character whose name is in a different language.
  8. Don’t make your character’s name hard to pronounce.
  9. Use the character’s last name instead of the first, particularly if it is a more memorable name.
  10. 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 . . .




4 responses

  1. Pronounable is certainly a large consideration, which basically just allows the reader to absorb the information. If they stumble, that’s definitely a sticking point. I think I agree with just about everything here and certainly hadn’t considered hyphens.
    That’s not one to use often but works well with last names. Thanks Dan, I see you have been thinking a lot about names since we talked.

    July 30, 2012 at 7:33 am

  2. Thanks, Nathan. You’re right, your blog spurred my thoughts on this. Glad you found the post useful.

    July 30, 2012 at 8:39 am

  3. Glad to hear your WIP is coming along well. I’d be done with a book by now 🙂 On naming main characters, I guess I don’t really use scientific way to pick them. I shoot for interesting, and will discard them if they aren’t that, or if they just don’t feel right. I will also call a character by his last name as well. I did that in my novel The Brotherhood. The main character’s name is Sam Blackthorne, and I just called him Blackthorne. Good post.

    July 30, 2012 at 8:41 am

    • Thanks, Drew. I appreciate your thoughts. Yeah, I used last names for some characters for the Gideon Plan. Always go for interesting.

      July 30, 2012 at 11:01 am

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