Any Name Will Do?

Have you ever been asked by an editor to change a character’s name in your novel? If so, I promise you are not alone. It happened to me too. One thing I used to like about writing books is that I could christen my characters with names I thought whimsical but my husband would have never let us call our children. But a writer still has to be careful.

Same Syllables

Awhile back, I ran into an issue with names bearing the same number of syllables. I once named the sisters in my novel Norma and Mabel. I was able to distinguish between them in my mind, but my critique partners got them mixed up. And they were nothing alike! But based on their advice, I changed their names and am so glad I did.

Alliteration

Sometimes it’s hard to resist naming characters with the same letter of the alphabet, especially siblings. But three brothers named Zach, Zed, and Zeke, for example, can confuse your audience. It is easy to throw off your reader by minor characters sharing too many name similarities. If Barney is your main character, and then you have a minor character named Barnabas with one speaking line readers may wonder if Barnabas and Barney are related.

But It Works in Real Life!

In real life, Justin, Jason, and Jesse may be easy to distinguish because they are three-dimensional. You have visual and auditory cues to set them in your mind. But a printed page or ereader screen is two-dimensional, and the reader must form opinions based on whatever information the author provides. Most authors focus on the main character, then offer sketches of secondary characters. So while the reader may have a clear picture of Justin, poor Jason and Jesse may be more blurred and easy to confuse. Granted, many authors have the skill, desire, and need to set all three brothers so vigorously in readers’ minds that no one would confuse them. But today’s readers are impatient and few titles are character studies, so varied names do help readers.

Pronunciation

Some names can have more than one pronunciation, and this can be aggravating to readers. For instance, my name isn’t great for a heroine because few people get it right the first time. I am called Tamella, Tamelia, Tamula, Tamera – just about anything but Tamela, which rhymes with Pamela, but is indeed not Pamela, which I am also often called. I can defend myself in real life, but your hapless character on a page cannot. Our president, Steve Laube, has had his last name mispronounced his whole life as well (by the way, it is pronounced “lobby”).

May I Take Your Bag?

Some names have too much association with a famous character to work well if you want your character to be fresh and inviting. For instance, who can compete with Scarlett O’Hara? And when the TV show Dynasty was popular, the name Alexis carried the weight of a conniving character. That baggage has been left curbside since, but naming your protagonists after major stars, notorious or not, will unfairly burden your good-natured characters. (Obviously, names like Benedict, Ringo, Madonna, Bono, Cher, Judas, and Beyonce should be avoided.)

What Year Is It?

Naming conventions evolve over time. A name such as Midge or Eunice conveys a certain era. Therefore be careful to choose names that work with the book’s time period. When naming characters, go back to the names that were popular when they were born, not at the time your book is set. Here are some sites that can help with historically popular names:

Top 1000 names in the 1920s .

Popular names from 1801-1999

Baby Names

Have fun!

Your turn:

What is your favorite character’s name? Least favorite?
What is the most creative name you have seen?
What character do you think has a terrible name?

25 Responses to Any Name Will Do?

  1. Jennifer Major April 5, 2012 at 4:37 am #

    I can write this comment here because I know beyond three shadows of a doubt that my sister-in-law will NEVER EVER see this. Mommy and Daddy’s last name is Jones, they didn’t have a name for their first born (really?), so the nurses called the baby “Indiana”. Wait for it…be patient…my SIL named the baby Harrison. I kid you not.

    Great kid, by the way.

    Best character name? Scarlet O’Hara. The name exudes power and style, guts and determination and strikes fear in all other wannabee power women. And who doesn’t want to yell “why fiddle dee dee!” when things aren’t going well? (I don’t, but that’s because I yell in bad Spanish.)
    Most creative name? Yoda. He was a kid at the pre-school where my sister taught. Again, I’m not making this up. He’d be 22 years old now. He was either locker-food in high school, or changed his name to Bob. He came to pre-school in long robes.

    Most creative name? The one I use for my hero in my MS. But you’ll have to sign me to find out what his name is! ;)

    • Tamela Hancock Murray April 5, 2012 at 6:14 am #

      Jennifer, I can say that the Hancock side of my family showed restraint by not naming any boys John. :)

      • Jennifer Major April 5, 2012 at 10:54 am #

        Being a Canuckian, I had to think on that for a moment! Yes, they did show restraint, didn’t they?

        My husband’s name is John. At one point, the Prime Minister of England was named John Major. Yuh huh. EVERY English person we knew went full bore on that. Especially the very loud, shrill teller at the bank. It’s rather hard showing Jesus’ love when you hear “Ohhhh It’s the first lady of England!” every time you go to the bank. Every. Single. Time.

        Love your blogs, TAMela. <See the schmooze?

        "Shane" has such a gunfighter-y vibe to it.

  2. Debra April 5, 2012 at 5:26 am #

    I found I had to change my hero’s name based on feedback. It was difficult, and proved to feel like I was now calling one of my sons by a different name. The new name is better by the way and now I’m used to it, but I still see the old one in places.

    Certainly the master of character names was Charles Dickens who, with an enormous cast of characters, went over the top!

  3. Connie Almony April 5, 2012 at 5:36 am #

    I had lots of name issues with my characters. I don’t know what got into me when I christened them, but they all had K sounds. I had a couple of Ts in there, but when I began the second book in the series, it seems I pulled out all the T characters to focus on. Thank goodness for search and destroy … I mean search and replace. I sometimes miss the old names, but I’m getting over it :o).

  4. J.L. Lyon April 5, 2012 at 5:36 am #

    YES, character names are extremely important. You want them to be distinct in your story but also don’t want the name to become a bigger issue than the character. That’s one reason I prefer to stick with conventional first names. For me, the aesthetics of the name is more important than its meaning. You want it to look good on the page and sound good when it’s spoken. I once took a writing class where the professor warned against using names that end in ‘s’ because it might throw off the aesthetics of the page when using a possessive. Ever since then I have noticed it in other works and tried to avoid it in my own. You don’t want your readers wondering if you used proper punctuation when they’re supposed to be engrossed in plot. Thanks for the post Pam–I mean, Tamela :)

    • Tamela Hancock Murray April 5, 2012 at 6:12 am #

      J.L., how funny — you hit the mark on how not only do some people change the first letter of my name, they often shorten it as well.

  5. Dora Hiers April 5, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    Great post, Tamela.

    So far, my editor hasn’t asked me to change a name, but I just noticed that I seem to be partial to hero names that end in “er.” Renner, Hunter, Tanner. Hmmm…probably should nix that trend. Thanks for the tips, Tamela!

  6. Rick Barry April 5, 2012 at 7:04 am #

    This is always a fun topic. It reminds of when I was in junior high and reading Lord of the Rings the first time. For quite a while, Gandalf and others referred to Sauron and Saruman, and I kept confusing them until well in the novels. Yes, Tolkien made it work, but in retrospect he might have done well to rename one with a moniker that doesn’t include an “s” and a “u.”

  7. Stefne Miller April 5, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    I lose sleep over choosing character names – especially the hero. For young adult books, the names are huge! Girl’s like the names to sound “hero-ish” yet cute at the same time. And they have to sound just right with the name of the leading lady. The two names must fit together, sound adorable, roll off the tongue and make girls squee.

    So far so good for me. I’ve received numerous letters of “I named my dog Riley” and even two new letters of: “If we have a son, we’re naming him Cabot”. (My two male leads from my three novels). I’ve also received several letters from people taking my female character’s names for their newborn daughters – which makes it all so much more fun.

    I did have an editor tell me to change a main character’s name. The book isn’t in production yet, so I’m still pondering it. When they made the suggestion, I felt like someone had slapped me. Crazy how personal it all becomes.

    Thanks for the article!

  8. Lindsay Harrel April 5, 2012 at 7:15 am #

    Great post! I went to the list at Baby Names and researched the most popular names in the 70s for one of my middle-aged characters. The name I’d originally chosen was too modern, I think.

    These are all great things to keep in mind. I wouldn’t have thought of the syllable thing.

  9. Rachel Overton April 5, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    It’s also important that the name looks good–and is clearly legible–in print. I once edited a project that used the name Liann for a Korean-American heroine. Only problem was, my eyes kept seeing the Celtic/Irish guy’s name Liam, instead. I suggested the author change the name to LiAnn to avoid anyone else tripping over it.

  10. Nathan April 5, 2012 at 7:23 am #

    Dang! I just finished a book with brothers Justin and Josh.
    There was another mistake that I made. So heads up about using names that look similar to commonly used words. I had a character that I constantly called Sue. When I was editing I noticed that I kept reading “She” as “Sue” and “Sue” as “She.” It slowed me down when I had to reread.

  11. Robin Bayne April 5, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    Great article, Pamela! Oops, Tamela. (hee hee) And I have always thought Laube was pronounced “Lawb.”

  12. Cindy R. Wilson April 5, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    You make a great point about names. Even though in the grand scheme of things they’re not huge, they can definitely distract or entertain the reader. I’ve had feedback about confusion regarding names starting with the same letter, which makes sense, feedback about a name being too old-fashioned (for a contemporary novel), though a friend named her baby the same thing a few months later, and feedback about a dog’s name sounding too much like a human’s and maybe confusing the reader. I love to be creative, but sometimes simpler is better :)

    • Tamela Hancock Murray April 5, 2012 at 9:53 am #

      Cindy, I’m not surprised your friend gave her baby a classic name. They’re coming back in style!

  13. Maureen April 5, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    Fantasy names are a whole other ball of wax. It’s really confusing to me as a reader when I can’t even imagine a pronunciation for a fantasy character’s name because it just looks like a bundle of random letters (including Q, X, and Z). That being said, my favorite character name is Luke Skywalker. Simple and easy to remember, but it definitely has an other-worldly feel to it.

    • Jennifer Major April 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      Our youngest son’s middle name is Luke. Why? ONLY so my husband can say “Zachary Luke, I am your Fathah!”

      • Rick Barry April 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

        Jennifer, I hope your husband says that line with Forcefully. ;)

      • Tanya Dennis April 6, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

        Jennifer: My son’s name is Zachary Luke, too!! My husband does that line occasionally, but I think more often I am the culprit yelling “Zachary LUUUUKE! I am your MOTHER!!!” ;)

  14. Gina Welborn April 5, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Several years back I was judging a writing contests and three of my five entries had heroine’s named Kat or Cat, which was short for Catherine, Katrina, Kathy, etc. About that time, I’d checked out a few books from the library and two of the heroines had the nickname Cat. Ugh.

    No offense intended to anyone who has a heroine called Cat/Kat, but if I’m reading a book and the heroine is called that, I immediately stop reading and toss the book aside. I know that doesn’t seem fair to the authors, but my Cat aversion in fiction is one of the few name aversions I have.

    When I look for character names, I search census records for the setting and time period. Generally I mix up a first name with someone else’s last name, but in the last historical romance proposal I worked on, I used the whole name becuase it perfectly captured my heroine. One problem I had was after skimming the census for names I liked, when I looked at my list, I realized I’m naturally drawn to names that begin with M or C. Not sure why that is because of my children — Matthew, Jerah, Jadan, Rhyinn, and Niley — only one has an M name.

    Fun post!

  15. Peter DeHaan April 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    I am one of the people who is easily confused by names that start with the same letter. This is the result of a bad habit I fell into when learning to read. Instead of trying to figure our how to pronounce long names, I would merely look at the first letter and the name’s approximate length. So when two characters’ names both started with a “T” and were eight or nine letters long, I was in trouble. Once, when giving an oral book report, I didn’t know the name of the main character. (It was “M” – seven letters.)

  16. Kara Isaac April 6, 2012 at 1:15 am #

    In my first manuscript I inadvertently named the two best friends of my main character names starting with L that had two syllables. From memory I think they were Lily and Laura. Once I re-read the first draft I realized how confusing it was and, in the end, both names ended up being changed.

    The most creative? Well I’m not sure if it’s creative or something less flattering but I have a friend who had a client called La-a. And that would be pronounced LaDASHa!

    In New Zealand we had a court case awhile ago where some parents wanted to name their child Talulu Does The Hula From Hawaii. Judge ruled against them saying it was close to child abuse.

  17. Laurie Alice Eakes April 6, 2012 at 8:55 am #

    First time I was asked to change a name was in my Regency series I sold to Revell. Not having read the Twilight series–I dislike vampires–I didn’t know about Isabelle being so big. OK, pop culture is not the strong point of a woman who lives in the 19th century most of the time.

    I had Arabella, Isabella, and MIrabella, names I still want to use, but maybe not all sisters. I went back and found period appropriate names, but still fell like they’re not the ones for these characters.

    I do tend to give a book lower marks when the characters have names not appropriate to the time. OK, Madison was huge for babies a few years ago. Fine name for a heroine in 20-25 years, but not one who is 25-30 now. And if you give me a Madison in 1820, don’t expect me to read your book. I consider the rest of the research to be suspect, too.

    Yes, names are vital for characters.

    Except I just realized the other night that my heroes tend to have names that end in en, sounds. Tristan, Owain, Colin, Gordon, … Sigh. Will watch that in the future.

  18. Tanya Dennis April 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    Great post. Another resource that proves helpful is “The Baby Name Survey Book” (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001NXDTTC/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=inthedai-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B001NXDTTC). This reference tells not only what a name means and how popular it may or may not be, but the impression that people generally have when they hear it. As a writer, I may think Beulah is a beautiful choice, but if 90% of Americans think that name belongs to a knitting octogenarian, than it may not be the best choice for my champion bull rider. Knowing the perceptions people have of names can help us get the right image across quickly.

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