Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Character names that fly - or flop: 5 rules to live (or die) by when you’re writing children’s books


What should you name your characters?  As much as we writers might like to think that story is all about plot, usually it comes down to character instead.  This is especially true in a children's book, when you sometimes have less than 500 words to impress your reader. 

Olivia, by Ian Falconer Have you met Ian Falconer's spunky pig Olivia

Would she have been just as quirky and charismatic with a name like Patty Pig?

You'll want to avoid these 5 critical mistakes to make sure you're creating a character kids can get into.  Without a character we love, the greatest plot in the world is worthless.

1.  Avoid alliteration

Patty Pig, Danny Dog, Ronald Robot, Big Bad Bertha, Eddie the Engine... with very few exceptions, alliterative names are terrible names, and editors tend to cringe when they see them.  If there's one thing that's the mark of an amateur, this is it.

2.  Don’t fear strange, ethnic or regional names

image Remember the story of Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo?  Certainly, if you have read it, you'll never forget his name!
That said, check to make sure the name you're using is authentic.  Tikki Tikki Tembo author Arlene Mosel neglected to do this, whether intentionally or not.  There is no such Chinese name, and apparently, many other "Chinese" details in the story are actually Japanese.  The tale itself may come from a Japanese folktale.

The message:  if you're writing about a culture that is not the one you were born to, find out if the name you've picked is a real and common one in that culture.

3.  But not too strange

Don't choose a name that's ambiguous or hard to pronounce.  This is true even for chapter books or books for adults that probably won't be read out loud.  (For one thing, it might be made into an audiobook someday!) 
The name "Gi" might sound like "guy" or "juy" or "ghee" or "gee" (like "gee whiz").  In Hebrew, the very common "ch" sound in names like Chaim and Nechama doesn't translate well for English-speaking readers (think about the struggle newscasters have every year trying to pronounce "Chanukah"!).  Similarly, the "!" click sound common in African languages is very difficult - if not impossible - for readers in English.

4.  Don't telegraph their personality

There are tons of exceptions to this.  Charles Dickens did it with characters like Cornelia Blimber - a prim school-matron - and other characters like Toodle, Bumble and Scrooge.  So does Horrid Henry, by Francesca Simon children's author Francesca Simon with characters like Horrid Henry and Moody Margaret.  Yup, alliteration, too.
What can I say?  Those are notable exceptions.  They don't apply to ordinary people like me and you.
In general, you shouldn't use your characters' names as shorthand for their personalities.  Editors see this as a gimmick of lazy authors.  And why give any editor this easy excuse to toss your manuscript aside without even reading it?

5.  Not making them distinct

So Tim walks out his door and bumps into his great friend Tom.  Meanwhile, later on at the office, his boss Thomas is ranting at him, while his wife Tina calls to remind him to bring home diapers.
First of all, what kind of kids' story are you writing?
But seriously, the problem here is obvious:  too many names that are far too similar.  Thomas really IS the same name as Tom.  Jack is actually the same name as John, plus there's also Jonathan, Jon and probably Jim that you'll want to avoid.
This is especially true if you're using names from another language or culture.  Both Lior and Liat are common Hebrew names, but I'm betting you'd have a hard time keeping them straight if I used them in a story. 

And by the way, once you’ve chosen a name – stick with it.  With few exceptions, you should call your character consistently by the name you’ve picked.  It’s okay if his mom calls him “Pookie,” but minimize nicknames to avoid confusing your readers.

If you've already used a name that violates one of these no-no's, don't worry about it too much. Here's a secret many authors don't talk about: if they can't come up with a brilliant name, they use a dumb name and change it later. 

In early drafts of the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote named his main character Connie Gustafson.  He later renamed her to the now-well-known Holiday (Holly) Golightly.

So when you're writing in the flow, go with the first name is that comes to mind.  You're not married to it.  If it's not a great name, then change it when you're revising your story.

Luckily for us, This is one of the easiest problems to fix in your manuscript.

A rose by any other name might indeed smell as sweet... but Romeo & Juliet might not have been the same story if its heroine had been a dippy girl named Connie Gustafson... or Peter the Peppy, Perky, or Perplexed Pig.


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