by Anne R. Allen
The old-school advice for naming fictional characters was to comb the obituaries. But not a lot of people get newspapers these days, so we need other sources of inspiration.
For me, spam is turning out to be one of the best places to find unique names. Every week I cull a few from my email and blog spam folders. I can always perk up a story by subjecting my heroine to a nasty boss named Hieronymus Weatherwax or a blind date with Snively Hassan. And I love the creativity of the three-first-names catfishers who try to friend me on Facebook. I’m using the catfisher name “Brownie David Jack” in my current WIP, Catfishing in America.
This week the loverboys who woo me on FB Messenger have come up with a new way to approximate American names. They’ve discovered the suffix “son” and gone to town with it. I found several messages from suitors named things like Kevinson Paulson, Ericson Peterson and Johnson Phillipson. Who knows? One of those names might work for some awful rich frat boy from your heroine’s past.
Creative monikers don’t just add color and humor to storytelling. They help the reader keep track of a large cast, and offer a shorthand reminder of their identities. Instead of calling the pizza delivery guy “Bob,” if you give him an interesting ethnicity, a cowboy hat and a name like Galveston Ngyen, readers will remember him when he shows up dead 50 pages later.
But beware. There can be pitfalls.
1. Always Google your Characters’ Names!
I once wanted to name a porn star Peter McHugh until a Google search showed a local politician with that name. I don’t suppose he would have welcomed one more off-color joke.
And you want to make sure there’s not a real Galveston Ngyen, or you might find yourself in an embarrassing situation.
Sometimes failing to Google a name can lead to more than embarrassment. A few years ago author Jake Arnott created a thoroughly villainous character who was a London cabaret singer in the 1960s. He gave him the name Tony Rocco. Unfortunately, it turned out there was a real Tony Rocco who had been a cabaret singer in London in the 1960s. Lawsuits ensued.
2. Choose Names that Fit the Character
Would Jack Reacher be such a phenomenon if Lee Child had named him Phillidus Frogmore? Would Miss Marple have been able to do all that surreptitious investigating if Agatha Christie had called her Fifi LaRue?
Inappropriate and misleading character names are what prompted this post. You don’t want to give a character a name that sets up the wrong expectation in your readers. If you need to give your protagonist a name that goes against type, explain why as close to the opener as possible.
This week I tried to read a mystery with a sleuth named something like Fatty. Somewhere in the third chapter we were told he was tall, blonde and athletic. But because of his name, I already had a picture of the guy in my head…and that wasn’t it. If he got his name before a successful stint on The Biggest Loser, I needed to know that sooner.
Sometimes a name shows up on the page and we don’t even know where it came from. Those can be unique and inspired. But don’t commit to the name if it doesn’t fit the character,
And although you want your characters to have a memorable names that fit their personalities, beware getting too Dickensian. Unless you’re writing humor, names as outrageous as Dickens’ Master Bates, Wackford Squeers or Serjeant Buzfuz may take your reader out of the story.
3. Choose Names that Begin with Different Letters
It’s best to vary the length as well. You want to choose names that look different from each other on the page. Names that begin with the same letter will always confuse the reader. So don’t give your heroine rival boyfriends named Tim and Tom unless she can’t tell them apart either.
This gets tougher as you move along in a series. If you carefully name the villain du jour something that’s not at all similar to your recurring characters, you may end up with villains’ names that sound too much alike instead. If the bad guy is named Vincenzo in Book 3, Victoria in book 4, and Vidor in Book 5 you’ll confuse your series readers. (Or telegraph who-done-it too soon.)
4. Avoid Generic or Over-Used Names.
I’ve seen agents complain that all variations of Catherine/Kate/Caitlin have become ho-hum.
Personally, I’m tired of Jake/Jack. This summer, when I was bed-bound and reading dozens of books a month, I once read three books in a row with love interests named Jack. I couldn’t figure out why Jack the mechanic didn’t arrest the bad guy when he caught him red-handed. Turned out I had him mixed up with Jack the policeman and Jack the FBI agent.
And remember you don’t have to use all-Anglo names (unless you’re setting your book in rural England.) Americans are as likely to be named Laura Garcia or James Rodriguez as Robert Johnson or Anne Allen (my friend Laura Garcia pointed this out to me. We have two of the most generic names in the US.)
5. Be Creative when Naming Fictional Characters, but Make Names Pronounceable.
Making up names is fun. But make sure humans can pronounce them. One of the most common “pet peeves” readers complain about are the unpronounceable character names that show up in Sci-Fi and Fantasy. We may think that since the story is presented as text, it doesn’t matter if you can say them out loud. But it’s amazing how much we need to “hear” even when we’re reading silently.
Plus, given the current popularity of audiobooks, you don’t want a good narrator to reject your book because of print-specific names.
So even though she’s from the planet Zoticus Five, don’t name the love interest zxx5, even though you have a marvelous backstory to explain the name. If readers can’t pronounce it, they’ll be jarred out of the story every time zxx5 enters the scene.
6. Name only Featured Players, not Walk-Ons.
Don’t clutter the story with too many names. A named character needs to play a significant role (whether dead or alive.) Otherwise, just call her “the Uber driver” or “the mail carrier.”
If her only purpose is to transport the protagonist to the family reunion or deliver an Amazon package to Uncle Sanjay, don’t name her. Or the reader will think she’s a suspect when Uncle Sanjay is found dead in the next chapter.
7. Don’t Change Names Mid-Story.
So your heroine finds out halfway through the book that she’s the king’s daughter, and she’s not really Sally the milkmaid but Princess Ursula von Milkenberg.
Avoid the urge to start calling her Princess Ursula in the narrative. Obviously it will become necessary in dialogue, but if we met her as Sally, keep calling her Sally to the reader.
8. Choose Names to Fit the Setting, Period, and Age Group.
I once had an editing client who named a contemporary sixty-year-old librarian “Mildred”—an unlikely name for a Baby Boomer. I suggested Linda, Susan, or Judy.
On the other hand, Linda, Susan, and Judy don’t even rank in the top thousand names for the last decade. If your female character is under twelve, try Sophia, Emma, or Olivia.
I made a period mistake myself when reworking an old story. Morgan was an unusual name for a girl when I wrote the piece twenty years ago. Now it’s way more common than Anne.
You can look up American baby names by decade at the Social Security Administration site.
But remember US, Canadian, Aussie and Brit names differ. Hyphenated names like Jean-Claude and Mary-Ellen are rare in the UK. But Zara, Nigella and Callum—all popular in England now—don’t appear on any US lists. (But keep Nigella out of that Regency Romance. Cross check with your Jane Austen collection or use a Regency name generator.)
One of the top 25 names for Canadian girls is Aria–who knew Canadians were such opera fans?
UK names by decade are available at the government statistics website. One of the most popular baby names in the UK right now is Mabel, which hadn’t made the list since 1924.
For Australians (including Aboriginal names and their meanings) try Babynology. Call a young Aussie either Olivia or Oliver, and you can’t go wrong.
9. Try A Character Name Generator
Character name generators are great fun. And they can be a goldmine for minor character names. Just Google “character name generator” with the genre.
There’s one for naming male characters in Regency England.
And one for naming fictional characters in fantasy and steampunk.
I played around with a steampunk name generator that gave me the names of two of my characters in The Queen of Staves: Mack Rattlebag and Lady Ruffina.
10. Don’t Fake Foreign or Antique Names.
Naming fictional characters in historical fiction requires research. Ditto names in other cultures.
At a writers’ conference I attended in my youth, an attractive man tried to woo me by suggesting we exchange critiques of our first chapters. His story, set in Rome during the Early Christian era, was pretty good. But although some of his Romans had authentic names like Tiberius, many had made-up names like and Jamesus and Kirkidus.
I had to stifle a laugh and tried to be kind, suggesting he pick up a Latin textbook at a used book store. (This was in the ancient days “BG”–before Google.) But he said “I never change a name after I’ve written about the character.” I could only cringe.
The truth is Ancient Roman first names were not numerous, which is why they called their kids stuff like “Quintus” and “Octavian” (literally, “five” and “eight.”) As adults, Romans often earned Mafia-style nicknames. The poet Ovid was known as Ovidius Naso—Ovid the Nose. And BTW, Latin does not often use the consonant “k”.
Genealogy sites are great for historical names, and for contemporary foreign names, surf around the many baby-naming websites. Here’s one for Albanian first names.
Your hero’s Albanian neighbor can have two adorable children named Fisnik and Flutura.
Bonus tip: Run a final search-and-replace if you change a character’s name.
I learned this the hard way. I sent out requested partials to two agents before I realized I’d reverted to the old name for an entire chapter. That might not have been the only reason for my rejections, but I know it didn’t help. Sigh.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) April 18, 2021
What about you, scriveners? How do you go about naming fictional characters? Have you ever used a character name generator? What’s your favorite source of interesting names?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
After giving a band a mediocre review, music blogger Ronson Zolek’s life is destroyed by the vindictive band leader, Mack Rattlebag. The death threats, doxing and accusations of unspeakable crimes lead “Ronzo” to fake his own death. His only refuge is a California homeless camp. He tries to keep his relationship with Camilla secret, so Rattlebag doesn’t target Camilla as well.
Rattlebag has more nasty plans in store, but Ronzo has a secret weapon: his ability to read Tarot, handed down from his Roma great aunt.
Available at all the Amazons
It’s #6 in the series, but can be read as a stand-alone
“A pure delight to read! Chock full of interesting characters, mystery, and humor that just won’t stop (“Never ask a favor of a Capricorn. They have spreadsheets where their heart should be…”), this page-turning stand-alone novel offers readers eccentric characters…and a tarot-infused story that moves effortlessly through 66 chapters, each chapter opening with a picture from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck.
Themes from the famous deck resonate throughout the story, weaving its way into dialogue, storyline, and character (including a handyman-turned-tarot-reader), even setting as evidenced in the description of a home of a tarot client that resembles the fortress on the Tower card (complete with a rocky cliff and the dangers it brings). I found the Wheel of Fortune to be the perfect card to bring closure to the novel.”….Julie Valerie
Featured image Gabriël Metsu, Dutch (1629–1667), “Man Writing a Letter”