For some, naming a character is one of the funnest parts of putting a story’s world together. For others (like me,) naming a character is sheer hell. So many factors are involved when birthing a character’s name: cultural background; time period; genre—to name a few. There are also pop-culture implications: is the name shared with a previously existing character that has strong ties to the pop-culture world? When readers hear the name, will they instantly think of that famous character and be taken out of the story?And that right there, that’s what you’re trying to do, isn’t it? Keep your reader invested in the story. Believe it or not, character names can help do this. However, if poorly implemented, character names can also distract your reader, pulling them away from the action. Here are a few pointers that will keep your character names from distracting your reader and pulling them out of the story:Make sure the name is pronounceable: I see writers fall into this trap all the time: they want to make their character’s name unique and unforgettable. Unfortunately, a lot of authors go to extremes with this measure, giving their characters names that are so insanely unique that it’s impossible to figure out how to pronounce the name.Nothing takes me out of a story faster than trying to figure out how to pronounce something, character names included. And once I’m “out” of a story, forget about it—I’m not going back in. You can bet that if your character’s name is spelled similar to “Twldkhfhsf” that I’m going to be pulled away from the action, distracted, and quite honestly annoyed.Analyze the name you’ve selected for your character and determine how easy or difficult it is going to be to pronounce said name. If it’s too far out there, go with something simpler. Sure, some names—due to the culture from which they originate—are going to be more difficult to pronounce than others. That doesn’t mean they have to be impossible to pronounce. If you’re writing a story that’s set in 1842 Ireland, for example, you really don’t need to name your character “Caoimhe” to be authentic. “Mary,” “Margaret,” “John,” “Patrick” and “James” are all extremely popular names from that timeframe—and that’s according to Ireland’s official civil registration of births. Keep names simple and pronounceable and you’ll keep your readers invested in the action of the story.Avoid pop-culture references: Using names that have been used in extremely popular media can also distract your reader. When your reader sees the name, they are instantly reminded of that media and are pulled from your world to the world they remember based on the name. I would never name one of my characters Morpheus, for example—or Neo. (You’ve been pulled from this blog post and are now thinking of the classic Matrix Kung-Fu training scene, am I right?)It can thus be difficult to come up with an original name, since so many of them have been used before. With a little research, it is possible to find a name that doesn’t immediately illicit memories of another form of media, though. One of my favorite plotting websites is http://www.babynames.com. There are literally thousands of names from hundreds of cultures at your disposal. Spend some time on the site and you’re destined to find something that will suit your needs, that hasn’t already been made immensely popular by another book, play or movie.Avoid real (famous) people: The same rule that applies to pop-culture references applies to the names of famous persons. Imagine you’re reading a book—a space opera let’s say—and the main character is introduced as Mr. John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Unless you’ve never picked up a US History book, this is likely going to distract you.How do you ensure that you aren’t copying the name of a celebrity or historic individual? Google’s your friend here. Do a quick Google search of the name—see what pops up. If the name has already been made famous by someone, I’d reconsider it.Make sure it fits the culture/time-period/genre: A book set in 1900s England with the main character Hitomi Mitsukawa is going to stick out like a sore thumb. When researching names, ensure that the name fits the culture, the time-period, and the genre.What do I mean when I reference genre-specific names? A futuristic SciFi novel is going to have an easier time getting away with a new-aged or futuristic name. A vampire novel is going to have an easier time getting away with a main character named “Raven Nightswallow.” Depending on your genre, your name can be used to reflect the character’s goals, troubles and personality. Ensure that your character’s name is suited to the genre in which you’re writing. Having a name that doesn’t suit the genre can lend itself to reader distraction. That’s all I have on character names for now. I hope it helps. As always, thanks for reading, thanks for commenting and thanks for giving me someone to write to! Stay Classy, Blog-o-Sphere!Best, —
Naming Your Darlings: Pointers on Properly Naming Your Characters — Writing. Editing. Publishing. Design.
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