—unless you have a really, really, really good reason and it better be an integral part of the storyline. Not just something made up as an excuse to have a unique and cutesy name.
Naming characters is important to your story and to your character development. You don’t want to spend weeks on it, but you also don’t want to just pull a name out of a hat and slap it on your character (even though my parents did that to one of my sisters).
One of the issues I’ve had lately (over the last 10 years) is weird names for the sake of being unique. I know this is a case of art reflecting life—I shudder at some of the names that show up on the Primary class rolls. But still, you’re not naming someone in real life. You’re naming a fictional character. You want something unique enough that it will be memorable, but not so weird that it pulls the reader out of the story every time they see it.
Here are 10 things to consider when naming characters (not necessarily in order of importance). When you break these rules/suggestions, you must do it for a really good reason that works with your story, not against it.
- Personality. I just read Vampire Academy last week and the main character’s name is Rose. It was not a good fit for me—too soft and sweet, even though this girl was definitely beautiful but with a thorny side to her personality. Every time I saw it, it pulled me out of the story line. Your name needs to fit the personality of the character. If you’ve got a vibrant, fun-loving character, something short and unique is a better choice than something long and traditional. If your character is morose, pick a name that’s slow and languid.
- Age. Fit the name to the age of the character. As a general rule, children usually have shorter names, while adults have heftier names. If you break the rule, do it because it’s right for the character. For example, Charles Wallace (Wrinkle in Time) isn’t usually a name you’d want to saddle a child with, but due to his personality, it works. If you’re writing about an 18 year old, you might want to Google popular names from 1990. If you’re writing about a fifty year old, Google names from 1959.
- Gender. Don’t give your hero a sissy name or name your heroine “Bob.” It’s more distracting than memorable. There are a lot of gender crossover names now. If you use one of these, make it clear what gender your character is way up front. I can’t remember the book now, but I encountered one of these recently. I guessed wrong and was in chapter three before I realized the main character was a girl. Not a good thing.
- Ethnicity. I love ethnic names when used appropriately. I think there needs to be more characters of color in our mostly white-bread LDS fiction. We’re slowly adding ethnicity to our stories. But as we do, it’s important that we pick names that match without stereotyping. (I mean really, not every Latino woman is named Maria.) To find a variety of ethnic names, just Google (ex: Latino names).
- Regionality. Be aware of your setting when choosing names. Did you know that in the south, Ryan is a girls name? In the west, it’s a boy’s name. Speaking of vampire stories, Sookie* is a great name for a psychic, southern, vampire-dating waitress. It’s memorable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard it before, but it works. Again, Google is your best friend for finding regional names.
- Historicalness. Okay, I know that’s not a word but I’m in a hurry. This is a two-parter. First, when in history is your story set? You’ll want to find a name that was in use during your time period. Google popular names from 1830, or whenever.
The second part of this is how has this name been used in history. History colors names with certain character traits. For example, if you name a character Adolf, it may not immediately bring to mind characteristics of kindness, love and gentleness.
- Spelling. Don’t make up a weird spelling of a name just to be unique. I am so tired of seeing this in realistic fiction. I know that’s the trend in real life, but just show a bit of restraint. For example, Melynda is okay. As is Malinda. But Mylynda is a bit too much. Unless you’re writing SFF.
When you come up with an unusual spelling of a name, run it past a few people and see how they will pronounce it. For example, Ginny. Most Americans will pronounce that with a hard g. Which is fine, unless you want it to be pronounced like Jenny. Which leads us to. . .
- Sound. What does the name sound like when you say it aloud? Another two-parter. First, will your readers pronounce it correctly. If your test readers don’t, you may want to clarify it in chapter 1 (rather than in book 4 of the series; but we forgive Rowling because she was writing for British readers, all of whom know how to say Hermione).
Second, is it too hard to say out loud? Does it sound as pretty as it looks on the page. Again, this is something that is more critical for those writing SFF, but if you’re using unusual names for any reason, take this into consideration.
- Likeability. All of us have names we love or hate because of someone we know in real life. There are other names that stick in the public consciousness. For example, Flo. Who’d you see? (A red-headed southern waitress, right?) Be aware of the social connotations of names. You might want to avoid last names like Manson or Dahmer. Bundy might get your reader thinking of a killer or a loser couch potato. Run your names past a few people and see what image gets conjured up.
- Common. How common is the name? If you’re writing a realistic YA, stay away from names like Brandon and Tiffany. Find something a little more unique. Also be aware of names in popular books in your genre. This is when a writing critique group really comes in handy. A woman in my writing group once chose the name Alex for a young boy involved in a spy novel. She’d never read the Alex Rider series. Also, now is not the time to name your romantic hero Edward.
These are general guidelines to get you started. All of them can be ignored—if you have a good reason. Just make sure that reason works for your story.
*The “Dead” series by Charlaine Harris. I’ve only read one of these books. Too much sex for me.