Naming Considerations

 There are many, many things for the prudent author to consider when naming a character. I’ve blogged about some of them before. I’m writing a long series of novels (the first one will be out this month!!) and have been forced to dig deep, deep into the well of character names. When I had a character whose name would not jell I put it up to the group mind on Facebook. I immediately discovered that nobody thinks of these issues except me.
So, let’s think about them. These considerations might include:
Repetition. Please, only one Charles in each book or series unless there are sound reasons for having another If you are obliged to have a few of them, be medieval and resort to epithets or nicknames. The new Charles could be Charles the Bold, for instance, or Chuck, or Jughead. Why confuse your reader? The play Hamlet is about the prince of Denmark, right. But nobody even needs to name the king his dad, and Shakespeare doesn’t bother. Not only is Hamlet Sr. assassinated before the first act of the play, but his name is irrelevant to the plot. (How then, you may ask, do we know that the murdered king is Hamlet Sr.? We don’t. But we cannot call him Skippy, can we? There is no textual reason to do that. Whereas if we call him Hamlet Sr. then we all immediately know who we are talking about. You had no difficulty identifying him, five sentences ago, right?) There are a couple people named Walter in my novels, but I carefully hoarded all the fun I was going to have with Walter Hartright Jr. until the right book.

Initials. Our own Sherwood Smith pointed out to me that a mild dyslexia can make the eye easily flummoxed by Natasha, Natalia, Norman, and Nancy. Tolstoy is a big offender this way, and the long confusing character list at the front of War and Peace will show you precisely what Sherwood means. For plot hintiness initials can be useful, but otherwise insert some variety in there. Your reader will never post a review complaining, “You know, her book was just too clear and easy to understand.”
Historicity. There are powerful naming trends that the author may direct this way or that, but with care. Many names are closely hitched to a time or place. Never plan to name your 14th century German countess Buffy. And always google the name you formulate. Anastasia is a fine historical name, but if you have not read 50 Shades of Grey, a search will kick up some things about a modern Anastasia that you may be grateful to know before your book appears.
Theme. Naming secondary characters is a discreet and sneaky moment to insert theme. (It is unwise to do this with major characters unless you want to sound like Pilgrim’s Progress.) There is a reason why my heroine Marian’s mother is named Celeste, but the author is not going to tell it to you.
Euphony. The name can’t sound weird when you say it out loud. This is important not only for the Audible edition, but in-story. Your characters will use it when they talk to and refer to each other. You may hope that her school friends in the novel will refer to young Cassiopeia as Cass, but I rather think they’ll call her Pee. Oh, and be sure to say first-name last-name out loud together, plus any middle names you may have thrown in. Just as in naming a baby, you want to avoid unfortunate humor (nothing wrong with Peter Abbott, until you say it out loud), or inappropriate rhyming or associations (Franklin Nicholas Stein).
Finally, an organizational trick for long works is a proofing index. Create a list of the characters, and whenever you invent a new one add the name to the list. Then you can easily see that this is the fifth Charles in the trilogy and you had better name that new flunky Horace instead. When the book goes to press you can hand this document to the proofreader, who will bless your name.

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Naming Considerations — 6 Comments

  1. Also, remember that readers may have more difficulty than you do in remembering who belongs to each name. This may apply doubly for names that are unfamiliar and which we don’t pronounce out to ourselves. (some people see the names, others hear them).

    Remind us who belongs to that name a couple of times by describing some feature or action that belongs to them. And if the character is off-screen for a while, do that again.

    • Dick Francis was a master at this. He’d describe something unique about a character–the man with the wild pattern tie who was a slob and you couldn’t tell what was a color in the tie and what was food stains. Ever after he called the guy Mr. Messy Tie. No problem at all remembering who he was and where he fit in the story.

  2. Now a days one can name a modern character almost anything. A neighbor named her daughter Moonfeather. The day she turned 18 she legally changed it to Jane. I stole it for a craft name for a modern witch. In times past in Western Europe or US you are always safe with something Biblical or floral. Or you can fall back on Faith, Hope, Charity, Honor, Duty, or Courage.

  3. I totally agree about naming; if I’m not reading a 19th century Russian novel where I have to keep turning back to the Dramatis Personae list to keep the patronymics straight, I don’t want to have to think about which Charles is Charles. Even in the British monarchy, the name you were called (David, for example) might be one of a half dozen baptismal names, but not the name you took on acceding to the thrown (Edward VII–yes, I’ve been watching The Crown).

    But about Hamlet? In fact, at least once in the play there’s a reference to the old king as Hamlet, during the scene with the gravediggers. When asked how long he has been a gravedigger, Clown 1 says:

    Of all the days i’ the year, I came to’t that day
    that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.

    Still, by that time I figure everyone is pretty clear on who is who.

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