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NaNoWriMo special: Naming characters

45,000 words! Way ahead of schedule.

Naming characters is one of the great joys of a fiction writer, when it's not one of their great nightmares.

We all want to come up with the next Sherlock Holmes, or Indiana Jones, or Stan Lee. (Isn't he a character?) It can be more complicated according to the genre: With science fiction you might need a Han Solo, with fantasy a Bilbo Baggins. Alliteration is your friend ... sometimes. After all, we have Clark Kent, or anyone invented by the previously mentioned Stan Lee.

Sometimes I go to great effort to give my character names meaning, while other times I just go with what sounds good. In my first published novel, my male protagonist was famous for taking extreme risks, even as he denied being a risk taker. His name? Chance, of course.

With its sequel, The Notorious Ian Grant, I was creating a character who already had a last name--he's the son of a minor character from Storm Chaser. I wanted something to fit his rakish, shall we say notorious personality, and settled on Ian. I also had to take into consideration what his father, an old school type, would have named him.

Often I painstakingly go through the meanings, sorting through my close to a dozen books about names (hey, I'm ready to name your baby!) And that's fine, but it might be more important to pick out a name that just doesn't conflict in other ways.

Do you have two characters whose names begin with an R? Or do all your characters have one syllable last names? Do the first and last names fit together? Say my name fast, without the middle initial ... I wouldn't give a character my name. Look at your cast list, and make sure two of the names aren't too like each other.

You might also consider whether to give your characters names that could apply to either sex, like Robin. I love the female name, Dani. But if Dani's best friend and her family all call her Dan, it could cause some confusion with the reader.

Then there's the question of ethnic names. In the Storm Chaser series is a character named Fran--her full name is Francesca. In my unpublished novel Beowulf: In Harm's Way is a character named Sachiko Endo, whose parents hail from Japan by way of another planet. Now, that story is set 500 years in the future, so there's no reason to think someone named Maria Nejem or Mohan Singh are from any particular place on Earth, or even from Earth at all. But there's also no reason to think my ship's crew will all have names like James and Leonard.

My current novel in progress is a romantic comedy. While the romance genre doesn't have the strict rules it once did, there are certain limitations on names, at least for American audiences. Colin and Wyatt are fine names for male protagonists, depending on the sub-genre; Larry Duckworth would probably not be your male lead.

I named my male protagonist Reed Carter. Why? Because I liked it; I had a backache at the time and didn't feel like looking up meanings. These things happened. Similarly, my female lead is Alice Delaney: I've always liked Alice, and Delaney had an extra syllable that seemed to work well with the first name, and Reed's name.

Now, with secondary names you can have a bit more fun, but be careful if your character might end up with a larger role in a sequel, or series. In Storm Chaser, I gave Chance Hamlin's little sister the name Beth, mostly as an afterthought. She was just a minor character, after all. But in the tradition of Urkels and Fonzies everywhere, she took on a life of her own and has so far shown up in three novels and a short story collection. If, in the new book, Alice's friend Rina Quade takes off, hopefully I'll be able to live with the name.

Finally there's naming characters after friends, family members, and enemies.


Well, not without their approval, anyway. Never underestimate the power of people to be offended. Of course, if the character has a different last or first name, and their hair color is different, or even if they're of different gender, hey--just a coincidence, right? Before you do this, know who you're honoring. If you're dishonoring them, change the character around a lot.

My new book (working title Fire on Misty Creek) is set in northern Kentucky. It features a volunteer fire department, and to fill out its membership roles I chose popular last names from Knott County, where my relatives came from--even though its in southeast Kentucky. A little honoring of the roots, there.

The important part, when choosing names, is to have them fit the character, and to avoid confusion. If you end up with a Sherlock Holmes, that's just gravy.

He is Groot.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 21st, 2017 04:13 am (UTC)
Naming is a tricky thing. I still have ones named XXX in mine. ANd you are doing excellent!
Nov. 21st, 2017 11:21 am (UTC)
I always have to come up with names before I start ... but that doesn't mean I don't change them later. About three quarters of the way into this manuscript a new character named Dolinski appeared, and I knew I had a problem as soon as I introduced him to my main character and her father--the Delaney's.

I'm doing way better than I thought I would be! Part of that is because of my back problems--I'll work around the house for a few hours, then it's time for a writing break.
Nov. 21st, 2017 09:30 pm (UTC)
I try to do that and usually the main characters are all named (until I change them) but the secondary characters who crop up are rarely so lucky.

That's good (and bad). In my case the shoulder/back pain is making typing hard
Nov. 22nd, 2017 06:07 am (UTC)
Every couple of months or so I get back pain so bad I have trouble typing, but it isn't usually too much of a problem. Good thing too, since that's my retirement income we're talking about.
Nov. 22nd, 2017 06:08 am (UTC)
I hear that. My arthritis is pretty bad so...
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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