Your Immortal Characters
By Roxanne Smolen
The names of your characters should be chosen with care. Why? Because as soon as you pen them they live forever. Scarlett O’Hara. Hannibal Lecter. Harry Potter. The name of a character can be as recognizable as the title of the book they reside within.
To be memorable, names should stand out from other names in your book. Similar names such as Ariel and Aria, Steve and Steele, or Kylie and Kayla are easy to mix up. I know an author whose characters’ names all started with the letter M. It was funny, but after a while it became rather cumbersome. You don’t want your reader to stop reading in the middle of dialogue and say “Who’s this now?”
A good name can help characterize the character. Try to keep in mind how your characters interact. For instance, parents often use nicknames for their kids. By choosing a name that lends itself to a nickname, you can characterize two characters at once. If a parent uses the nickname, they can be seen as loving and warm, but if everyone uses the nickname except the parent, they will seem distant and cold.
You can name your Asian character Bobby if you are trying to make a point, but your readers will have a better picture of him if he has an Asian name. That also goes for regional names. Willa-Sue would feel right at home in the backwoods, but Catherine might stumble around a bit. Having trouble thinking of an ethnic name? Try this name generator.
Be sure your name is age appropriate. Some names weren’t used in certain eras. A character named Britney would not sound authentic in a book about the Roaring Twenties. Alternately, names like Goody or Fanny don’t fit a contemporary novel. You can search names by year at the Social Security site.
Another stumbling block is pronunciation. I know, I know. Our books are not meant to be read aloud. But if the reader can’t pronounce a name, even in their head, they won’t remember it. Many fantasy and science fiction writers make up names so as to appear other worldly. It’s easy to forget that the readers of their stories are on this world. Names like Zxxythyw are often skipped or skimmed, keeping the reader from becoming immersed in your story.
That’s not to say that you can’t get creative. A name like Bilbo Baggins is distinctive yet easy to pronounce. You want the name to flow not clash with your text. Try combining parts of popular names to create a new one, like Jennevan. Search for names in a baby name book or go to www.babynames.com. But don’t do what I did in one of my earlier books. In an attempt to make characters sound futuristic, I spelled their names backward. That’s how I got Aloca Coc.
Which brings up another point: Take care that your characters’ names don’t elicit an inadvertent snicker. You don’t want to write a romance with Rod Hardman as your main character. Or maybe you do. Who can forget the marvelous names of J.K. Rowling’s characters? Or Lemony Snicket’s? Even their minor characters had memorable names. Esme Squalor is a perfect example of fitting a name to a character’s personality.
That takes us back to Scarlett O’Hara, Hannibal Lecter, and Harry Potter. Each of these names defines their characters’ personalities at the beginnings of their books. Scarlett is feminine and blushing, Hannibal is strong and unstoppable, Harry is common and unassuming. Characters may change throughout the course of the story, but their core remains—and their names can exemplify those cores.
Your book will be immortal. So will your characters. Give them a name they can live with.
Excerpted from About Your Character’s Name. Available in the Kindle Store.