What do names tell us about characters?

It was the character who made the names James Bond famous and unforgettable.
It was the character who made the names James Bond famous and unforgettable.

THE CHOICES AUTHORS MAKE in naming their characters is, for me, a pet peeve.

Some annoyances that irritate me, related to writing have become subjects of a newfound obsession. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve simply quit some books before I reach the midpoint if the indiscretions become intolerable. [Other pet peeves will be subjects of future blogs, such as verbs that end with “ing.”]

While I’ve addressed this topic before, it’s time I did so again, with more specifics.

  1. In general, authors must decide early on if they want the names of their characters to have been chosen as an obvious

    description of his or her personality or role in the story. Should the heroine be named, “Mary Sunshine?”

  2. Consider your genre. Do you want your readers to discern the identity of the villain in a murder mystery “whodunit” faster than you can say, “Jack Robinson?” If that is the case, choose a name like, “Snidely Whiplash.”
  3. Secondary characters are important, too. After the first two items on my list have been addressed, apply the same thought process to the minor characters.
  4. What about nicknames? Many real life people have nicknames and there’s no reason fictitious characters can’t either. Nicknames are handy topics for dialog as long as they aren’t overworked. (How many times does “Hawk” Barger have to explain the story behind his nickname?) Here’s an idea, let the character’s nickname become an essential factor in moving the plot forward. But remember to make sure the reader knows the given name.
  5. Names considered “foreign” in a major market need explanations. If you plan on North America being your major market, or at least a significant market, consider the ease of a reader dealing with what might be considered a “difficult” name (many foreign names as well as futuristic/fantasy names come to mind–although Barbarella and Smirnoff work).
  6. Consider the reading level of your market. Thirty-five per cent of Americans either cannot read, or read below a fifth grade level. People who read novels in the U.S.A. read on the ninth grade level. Long names with lots of syllables or hard to pronounce and remember names will likely cause the reader to quit your book sooner than later.
  7. Recent studies have determined the attention span for Americans has dropped from twelve minutes to eight. Easy names that flow and roll off the tongue help readers of any reading level.
  8. Avoid stereotypes unless there’s no better choice. In some situations, stereotypes work fine and are acceptable. It isn’t politically correct. As much as I rebel against being “PC,” use of stereotypical names may hurt sales.
  9. Use famous names with discretion. “Charles Manson” wouldn’t be a creative name for a bad guy—it’s already taken.
  10. An inventive use of colors for names can be found in Joseph Heller’s book, Something Happened. In a corporate setting, one of his characters devises a color wheel with the names of his co-workers and who’s afraid of whom (Brown is afraid of Green who’s afraid of Gray, etc..) Colorful names can be fun, but be judicious. Remember, Reservoir Dogs’ entire ensemble was named for colors.

Authors should fear not that I will take off a star from the rating if I review their books. As I said, I simply might stop reading and not post a review. Beware, other reviewers may share my concern for names and not be as forgiving.

Remember, the most recognized name in fiction was chosen by the author because he thought it to be boring. It was Bond, James Bond.

Please click the book cover image to read more about FCEtier and his novels.


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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Chip, I think that sometimes our subconscious chooses the name of our characters for us. In Wicked Little Lies, I had one character who was mistreated, abused, lied about, and verbally crucified. It wasn’t until after the book ended that I realized I had named him Lynch – Raymond Lynch.

  • Darlene Jones

    Finding the right names for characters is hard, but once you have a name that works, that character takes on a life of his or her own.

    • Your right about that, Darlene!
      There’s a group on Facebook in which the name “Claudia Barry,” my main character, strikes fear. Of course, it’s pleasing to me. 🙂

  • E.E. Giorgi

    Those are excellent tips! The dropping of the attention span is something I always try to ignore, but you are right, it should definitely be considered when making choices and also when indulging in long descriptions — a problem I have with my own writing, though I confess I get annoyed when most of today’s books have no descriptions at all! It just saddens me… masters like Gabriel Garcia Marquez are easily forgotten in today’s market. 🙁 Sorry, went off topic, what I meant to say is that I’m bookmarking this post as names are always a hurdle with every new book. 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting, Elena. Nice to know my article was helpful.

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