Names can tell us a lot about a person, especially when that person is a character in fiction. Names provide the author with a form of shorthand that can communicate setting (both time and place), culture, and even personality. Mishandled, however, character names can confuse readers (too similar-sounding), anger them (too unbelievable), or bore them (too many Toms, Dicks, and Harrys). So, let’s take a look at how best to name your characters.
Don’t worry, well-known authors don’t always get it right, either
Margaret Mitchell, in early drafts of her epic novel Gone with the Wind, apparently named her heroine Pansy O’Hara. Compared with Scarlett O’Hara, Pansy sounds too nice. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective was originally Sherrinford Holmes, and his sidekick was Dr. Ormond Sacker. I think we can all agree that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson work better. And Bram Stoker initially called the villain in his gothic novel Count Wampyr. During historical research, he discovered Vlad the Impaler (aka Vlad Dracula) and came up with Count Dracula as a happy alternative.
The point being that settling on the right name can be a process. Don’t get so attached to your character names in the first draft that you aren’t willing to revise them later. Often, we can’t see — or hear — the problems with names until we’ve finished the first draft (or subsequent revisions).
Consider the effect of the name
When you create a name, consider the effect you want to create.
Let’s say you call an American character in your story Johnny Foster. What might you assume about Johnny? What if we call him Jonathan Foster instead? Or rename him Jonathan Foster Kennedy? Now, your assumptions about the character may be quite different.
A character’s name can hint at:
- Story genre
Names like Goldry Bluszco and Brandoch Daha helps a reader understand that this book is a fantasy — in this case, The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison. Or how about Cedric, Wilfred, Rowena, Athelstane, and Gurth? Either you might think “fantasy” again or you’re expecting historical fiction (genre) set in the Middle Ages (time). And you’d be right: these examples are from Ivanhoe by Walter Scott.
What about location? Read this passage and consider what the names tell you about the location:
Abandoning his bicycle, which fell before a servant could catch it, the young man sprang up on to the verandah. He was all animation. “Hamidullah, Hamidullah! am I late?” he cried.
“Do not apologize,” said his host. “You are always late.”
“Kindly answer my question. Am I late? Has Mahmoud Ali eaten all the food? If so I go elsewhere. Mr. Mahmoud Ali, how are you?”
“Thank you, Dr. Aziz, I am dying.”
“Dying before your dinner? Oh, poor Mahmoud Ali!”
The excerpt is from A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, and immediately tells us we’re dealing with “non-British” characters (the 1924 novel would have assumed a British readership). Apart from one other clue in the dialogue (“Hamidullah, Hamidullah”), the names are what indicate location and culture.
Now replace the names with “English-sounding” names, make a few tweaks to the dialogue, and consider what assumptions we might make about the location:
Abandoning his bicycle, which fell before a servant could catch it, the young man sprang up on to the verandah. He was all animation. “Good God! Am I late?” he cried.
“Do not apologize,” said his host. “You are always late.”
“Kindly answer my question. Am I late? Have you eaten all the food? If so, I’ll go elsewhere. Lord Toppington, how are you?”
“Thank you, Dr. Cantrip, I am dying.”
“Dying before your dinner? Oh, poor Lord Toppington!”
Suddenly, the text suggests we’re in a British comedy set in the early 20th or late 19th century among a certain class (Lord Toppington). Could a character in modern Britain be named Dr. Aziz? Of course. Dr. Aziz might also be a gastroenterologist in modern Minneapolis, USA. But my point is that first impressions count. Our minds are likely to fall back on assumptions — assumptions authors can cleverly undermine if they so desire.
Finally, consider the effect of a name on what we may assume about a character’s personality. Scarlett O’Hara sounds stronger, more fiery than Pansy O’Hara. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer doesn’t exactly sound like an upper-crust, subtle detective (his idea of justice is as subtle as a hammer, after all). Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence not only have a pleasing alliteration that immediately tells us they are a unit; their names also suggest a light-heartedness that wouldn’t work for a noir like Mike Hammer, but fits perfectly with the effervescent, golden-age capers that Tommy and Tuppence are known for.
Which leads us to what makes a memorable name.
A little alliteration
I mentioned Tommy and Tuppence above. A classic device for creating memorable names is using alliteration. Bilbo Baggins. Mickey Mouse. Parker Pyne. Nicholas Nickleby.
Strong alliteration can communicate playfulness, so be aware that this may create an expectation for lightness or even comedy.
A cozy mystery might make use of playful names. But if you’re writing literary fiction about a serious topic, you probably won’t want a character whose name is Bingo Bellwether.
Do keep in mind, though, that alliteration is not necessarily funny.
William Wallace is a very serious example from history.There’s also the actress Parker Posey, who has a memorably alliterative name. And in fiction, E.L. Doctorow’s literary novel Billy Bathgate is no comedy. Billy Behan, an Irish kid in 1930 New York City, changes his name to Bathgate to better fit in with his new boss: Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz.
Also, alliteration can be more subtle in the middle of names — e.g., Sandra Belsang, Bill Amberford, Linda Streliski.
Comedy — intentional and unintentional
Alliteration isn’t the only way to make your names playful or even funny. If you’re going for outright comedy, playing with readers’ expectations via names (and sometimes defying our expectations) can be a useful device, if handled well.
P.G. Wodehouse’s comedic stories with Jeeves and Wooster include names like Gussie-Fink Nottle, Tuppy Glossup, and Lord “Chuffy” Chuffnell. We’re immediately aware what genre we’re in — and also that Wodehouse is poking fun at the upper crust.
Anthony Trollope, the dizzyingly prolific Victorian-era author, is (in)famous for his creative names: Lord Buttercup, son of Earl of Woolandtallow, Countess Clanfiddle, Sir Oliver Crumblewit, Sir Orlando Drought, Mr. Gotobed, Mrs Montacute Killandcodlem, to name a few.
Obviously, Trollope had a blast naming the characters, and these tongue-in-cheek monickers are fun for readers, too. This all works fine when a character is flat and intends to make us chuckle. But Trollope also tackles serious issues, and some readers may struggle to take a character seriously when his name is, for example, Mr. Haphazard. In general, silly names are best reserved for comedy.
Check the origins of a name
Check the popularity of names in the era of your story. Names indicate placement in time. A kid named “Hunter” in the 1920s would be unusual, and if we met a 90-something year old named Hunter now, we’d take note. But a teen named Hunter might not raise an eyebrow today. Similarly, you don’t meet many young people named Mildred. The name suggests an older person because it’s an old-fashioned name.
If you’re writing a historical novel, make sure you research that period’s names, so you don’t introduce a character whose name hasn’t been invented yet.
Moreover, be aware of the name’s history and meaning. There are websites that provide background on names, including which countries they’re most prevalent in and what the linguistic origins are. So, for example, using Behind the Name, we might learn that a character named “Diana” carries this rich meaning with her:
Means “divine, goddesslike”, a derivative of dia or diva meaning “goddess”. It is ultimately related to the same Indo-European root dyew- found in Zeus. Diana was a Roman goddess of the moon, hunting, forests and childbirth, often identified with the Greek goddess Artemis.
Does this mean that every “Diana” in a novel makes us think of the Roman goddess? No. But the association may occur to some readers who have been exposed to Roman mythology. Therefore, they may, even subconsciously, wonder what makes the Diana character like the goddess. Does she play the role of hunter in the story? Is she associated with a forest?
You can use this to your advantage. But be careful not to pour too much obscure meaning into your character names — and never assume your readers will know what that obscure meaning is. Leaning too heavily on this device will get you accused of authorial intrusion.
The power of nicknames
Nicknames can transform what we think about a character.
A woman named Charlotte Carrington might suggest an upper-class background, and that will give us certain ideas about her. Conservative. Older, perhaps. But what if her name is Charlie instead? Do we see her as younger, more dynamic? Is she slightly rebellious, attempting to break free from the conservatism of her background? With the assumptions the reader makes, we can defy expectations.
What about a man named Theodore? I picture a sturdy and stuffy man in his sixties or seventies. Now, let’s call him Teddy instead. I can’t help but see him as younger. More easy going. But not edgy or cool.
Consider also what the nickname says about the character and their relations to other characters in the story. Young Theodore might like to be called Theodore because he feels it lends gravitas to his image. But his mother insists on calling him Teddy, even in public. What if Theodore’s mother is such a bubbly, likable person that others can’t help but mimic her? Suddenly, everyone in Theodore’s life switches to calling him Teddy, sabotaging his efforts to maintain that important sense of gravitas. In this way, the way characters — and the people around them — engage with their names can characterize them and even set up conflict.
Beware of Danny, Manny, Ginny, and Minnie
When you’re sketching your characters, or after you’ve written your first draft, review all names to see if they sound too similar. Too many similar-sounding names can be confusing to readers. The characters can start to bleed into one. So avoid having a story with Pippa, Peter, Pansy, Prim or another with Dave, Dean, Deanna, and Dash.
A simple trick is to make sure that the characters have different first initials. If they do have the same initials, then try varying the length of the name — Tim can easily be distinguished from Theodore.
In fact, in general, you’ll want to vary the length. Jim might be friends with Seamus, who’s married to Elinor, and whose parents’ names are Harold and Lil.
Then check that they don’t all have the same suffix. If your three main characters have different first initials — D, M, and G — but they’re named Danny, Manny, and Ginnie, you’re in trouble.
Authenticity vs. readability
If you’re writing historical fiction or nonfiction, like memoir, you may encounter this problem: Several characters have the same names, and you can’t change them. For example, half the men in that 1940s social circle were called John, and there’s no getting around it. One solution is to use the last name or last initial to distinguish the characters (e.g., Smith and Barrow instead of John for both of them). Another is to use their actual nicknames (e.g., Jack) or invented nicknames to help the reader (e.g., London John vs. Paris John). Even if you’re being authentic and true to history, it won’t matter if the reader gets confused. Always consider the reader’s experience first.
Revenge is sweet…
It can be tempting to give a villain the name of a real-life nemesis. Be careful. People are easily offended — and some are even willing to make a stink. Better not risk it.
In one of my cozy mysteries, I allowed myself to kill off a high school teacher who had bullied me as a kid. But after the first draft, I changed the name. After all, I’d had my imaginary revenge, and putting that behind me, could focus on finding the right name for the character. The revised name was much better anyway. I’m glad to say that the story meant more to me than revenge.
The character name checklist
Here’s a checklist to use when you are sketching characters, and after you’ve finished your first draft:
- Check for similarity: Do they have the same first initial? Is there alliteration? Do they have the same suffix?
- Read each name aloud individually. Not just once. Several times. Are they difficult to say?
- Read all the names aloud together. How do they sound as units? Does one or more stick out — and if so, do you want that character’s name to stand out?
- Type your names — and notice how you type them. Do you frequently misspell them? That might be an indication they are too complicated.
- Sketch personalities. Write down each name and a few keywords next to the name that describe their personality. Does the name feel like it matches the character’s persona?
Final words on names
Finally, as I said at the outset, don’t worry. Don’t let naming characters stop you from writing. I’ve written drafts where some characters only had initials (“P. opened the door to the car”). Often, I’ve discovered the right names only after completing a manuscript draft, when I got a bird’s-eye view of the entire story and how the characters had developed — then I knew what names felt right or wrong.