Thursday, June 27, 2013

Naming Characters

In reading the latest novel in an epic fantasy series, I noticed that three unrelated characters, a major one and two important secondary ones, have almost identical names. I can imagine how that coincidence could have happened, if in the development of the earlier books the author created each character separately and assigned him or her the name that sounded appropriate at the time. In a cast of, if not thousands or hundreds, at least dozens, it gets hard to keep all the names distinctive. Yet that’s an important factor in preventing reader confusion—especially in epic fantasies with huge casts.

Some authors feature a list of characters at the beginning of each book. Do you think most readers find that kind of thing helpful or intimidating (good grief, I have to keep track of all these people?!)? To me, it’s a little of both. A long cast list can strike me as mind-boggling, but I do appreciate being able to look up a person if I’ve momentarily forgotten who he or she is.

Do you find that in creating characters you tend to reuse favorite names (given or surnames)? Or catch yourself starting most of your fictional names with the same few letters or sounds? I’ve noticed that quirk in my own writing. I have to watch myself for lapsing into those patterns and make a conscious effort to venture into areas of the alphabet I’ve previously neglected. (For some reason, I have an odd tropism toward K and L.)

Another consideration in naming characters is making them sound ethnically consistent within a fictional culture. In the “melting pot” of the United States, we might readily find people with names such as Joshua Chen or Natasha O’Toole. In most societies, however, names have more uniformity, and incongruities like that would have to be justified by a multicultural history similar to ours. Then there’s the situation labels “Aerith and Bob”—a very commonplace name surrounded by exotic or alien ones. Of course, incongruity can be used deliberately for humor, such as my iridescent blob of tentacles and eyestalks called Wilbur, in my short erotic romances “Tentacles of Love” and “Weird Wedding Guest.” (Although that choice didn’t come out of thin air; he’s named after Wilbur Whateley in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.”)

Weird Wedding Guest

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. If I've forgotten who a character is, the author didn't do a good job creating the character in the first place. A character name list isn't going to help.

  2. Good point! However, I was thinking of minor characters. In a huge book with dozens of named characters, it's not unusual for the role of one of them to slip my mind. Of course, that may be caused by my aging brain, not the author's fault. :)