Thursday, January 16, 2014

What to call your characters? Three reliable tips to help you choose.

Are you saddling your characters with the wrong names?  How would you know if you were?

It’s true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet… as would a Eustace Scrubb or Severus Snape or Winnie the Pooh or India Opal Buloni.  But sometimes, we miss the obvious when we’re picking names for our story characters.  Here are three quick tips for finding character names that will be just as memorable as these.

0763644323(Who’s India Opal Buloni?  Guess you’re going to have to check out Kate diCamillo’s leisurely-paced but mesmerizing Because of Winn-Dixie – our current read-aloud – to find out… and meanwhile, what a name, right?!)

1.  Decide who will stand out.

Many things can make a name stand out – and that’s not a bad thing.  But you as the writer have to decide who stands out and who doesn’t in your story.  A principal who appears as an incidental character in one scene shouldn’t bear the mellifluous moniker “Melville Monofinindohatchee.”  For one thing, you’d take more time introducing him than he’s on stage in the first place.

Many things can make a name stand out:  alliteration (like I just did!), a name that’s Dickensian in its moralism (Ebenezer Scrooge), or a name that’s a little strange and unexpected (Winn-Dixie, or India Opal Buloni).  It’s not a bad thing for a name to stick out from the crowd, but the uniqueness of the name should be related to the significance of the character.

2.  Make it suit your story.

You don’t have to pick a rare, fancy or even unique name.  Remember, the most popular kids’ books of all time revolve around a boy named Harry Potter.  The name you choose doesn’t have to have Dickensian portent if you don’t want it to.  What it does have to do is flow naturally from the style of your story. 

B000VYX8PE0064431789For the elaborate, gothic faux-horror motif that frames the Series of Unfortunate Events books, you may need names like Klaus, Violet and Sunny Baudelaire, but many perfectly wonderful books have been written about characters with everyday names as well. 0394824903 You’ll probably never forget Max from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, or Marvin, from Dr. Seuss’s Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now? (yeah, I know it’s really about Richard Nixon!) even though their names are extremely ordinary – or were ordinary when the book was written…. which reminds me:

Be conscious of the “age” of your name.  These days, Abigail is a common little-girl name.  But when my sister was born 30-something years ago, it really wasn’t, and I barely forgave my parents for choosing it for her.  “You’re giving her an old-lady name!” I yelled at them, in bossy-but-innocent wisdom. 

0064434516They picked the name anyway, and you can too, if you like, but I’m going to yell the same advice to you:  pick a name that suits your character’s age and the period in which they live.  “Frances” was probably a perfectly ordinary girl’s name in 1960, when Russell Hoban’s Bedtime for Frances was written, but these days, it’s a bit dated.  Ignore this advice if you want to – my sister seems to love her name, so there you go.

3.  Pick a name and stick with it.

On a writers’ group in which I participate, someone mentioned that she’d been proofreading a book with a character named Paul, a company vice-president (it was an adult book), who was referred to variously, throughout the book, as:  Paul, Paulie, Paulie-Wallie, Mr. Charleston, Paulie C., Mr. C., Mr. VP, Mr. Veep, the vice president, the veep, and Mr. Marketing.

With few exceptions, you’re only allowed to mix up the names as much as you would in real life, which is to say, not much at all.  You don't call your mother "mom" "moms" "momzy" "mommy" in the space of a single conversation ... unless she has some kind of weird split personality. 

On the other hand, it’s okay for certain characters (not all!) to call your character by different names if it comes naturally as part of their relationship.  If his name is Charlie, maybe his brother calls him Chuck and his mom, "sweetie."  But you shouldn't then have his best buddy call him "Chaz" and his wife call him "Cheetah."  Keep it as natural as possible; listen to the way we speak in real life and you (probably) won't go wrong.

Whether you use a random name generator, spend hours with a Bible or a name dictionary, or just let names bubble up from the depths of your imagination, I’d love to hear how you figure out which character names to stick with and which to toss back into the bin!  Let me know more about your process in the Comments section.


  1. Hi Jennifer! I'm currently struggling with character names for a young adult book i've just finished and am proofing. This was a great read, gave me some things to think about. I think i've been trying to give my protagonist a name that is unique (full name Emilia, but most call her Lia, not really all THAT unique) but the name just doesn't sit quite right with me, and I'm not sure why.

  2. Hi, and thanks for stopping by! Remember, too, that readers are very forgiving. I have almost never read a book and thought, "what a ridiculous character name." :-)
    To me, the name Emilia suggests an Italian - or at the very least, a European background, and perhaps it carries a little more worldliness than simple old Emily. Unless you set out to make her super-nice, she could come off as a little snooty. That's just me - but is that the sort of tone you're going for? :-)

  3. Well, her family roots are from Spain and England. She is nice, a bit of an over achiever type-a personality, but not snooty. Now that I have finished the story though, I can't think of any other name that would fit the character, ha ha, so I guess it stays.


As always, I love to hear from you.