Thursday, July 17, 2014

Naming Characters

A few days ago, I read a blog post on choosing character names. Among other things, the author discussed the common practice of using baby name books as references. I've done that in the past (besides a mainstream baby book, I have an old paperback of "New Age" naming suggestions for more exotic ideas). Now, though, I depend on the CHARACTER NAMING SOURCEBOOK, published by the Writer's Digest book club. It's divided by ethnic group and includes surnames (and explanations of each culture's naming rules) as well as first names. It also contains useful lists of the most popular American names by birth year.

That blog post talked about taking care not to name characters after her family members or close friends. I tread carefully in that area, too. Several of my favorite names have been barred from use in my fiction because they're worn by relatives or co-workers. On the other hand, I wouldn't go so far as to eliminate the name of every person I've ever been acquainted with. Another matter to consider is repetition of initials. Many authors tend to gravitate toward particular letters in naming heroes and heroines. In my case, I seem to default to L and M for heroines. Without realizing I'd done it until it was too late, I published two pieces with heroines named Laurel and Lauren, respectively. As for minor walk-on characters, if I don't pay attention, I lapse into the same few default names for all of them. Some authors keep charts of names they've used. While I don't do that, I can see the usefulness of the custom. Writing teachers advise against having major characters in a book or story with similar-sounding names or even ones that start with the same letter.

In real life, of course, a family or social circle often includes people with same-initialed names, names with similar sounds, and even identical names. For a long time we had three women named Betty in the office where I worked. At another period, we had four Joans. Fiction, though, imposes an artificial variety on names for the sake of clarity. Likewise, in defiance of "realism," we try to avoid ludicrous puns or names that don't "sound like" a proper hero, heroine, or villain, unless they're purposely chosen for the humor or incongruity.

One precaution I take, which I don't think I've seen mentioned, is avoiding famous and even moderately famous names. (Somebody only vaguely familiar to me might be a major celebrity to others.) If a given-plus-surname combination pops too readily into my brain, I Google it to make sure I haven't heard it somewhere and consciously forgotten it. In particular, if my character is an author, singer, etc., I don't want to name him or her after a real artist in the same field. Of course, it's almost impossible to invent a name combination not borne by SOME real person. The point is to make sure it's not a person readers will have heard of and have distracting associations with. In one of my early novels, I gave the heroine, Jenny, a boyfriend named Craig. My critique partner pointed out the humor, which was lost on me. I'd never consciously heard of the Jenny Craig company before then, although it might have lodged in my unconscious mind at some point. Needless to say, I changed the boyfriend's name. The heroine of DARK CHANGELING, my first vampire novel, was originally called Britt Logan. When I realized the airport in Boston, the hero's home town, is Logan Airport, I changed her last name to avoid the unintentionally funny coincidence. Such coincidences do happen in life. When I met my husband, his family lived on a street called by my mother's maiden name. But real life, unlike fiction, isn't required to be artistically appropriate.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. On the same topic of coincidences: I have three Davids in my extended family (different branches, so no confusion). Popular names do tend to cluster by generation.

  2. There are some Name (surname etc) tracking websites that give ethnicity, linguistic history, and even family tree info. Online is much better than books for finding interesting character names.

    One thing to avoid is naming characters in the same story with the same sounding names. It's confusing. If you have 3 Davids in a family to depict a real family structure, then do what real families do and CALL THEM by nicknames, joke about having the same name legally. Use the same-legal-name thing as a plot twist, or don't use 3 Davids.

  3. TV Tropes has an entry about this counter-realistic convention -- no identical or even similar-sounding names allowed -- in fiction:

    One Steve Limit