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9 Tips for Choosing Your Characters’ Names

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor

Another month, another authors’ Round Robin!

And this month our topic is:

How do you choose your characters’ names? Are there any you avoid?

I thought this topic might be quite easy to write about but, actually, once I started thinking about it, I realised in many ways choosing names for your characters is even harder than choosing a name for a child. Many people choose their child’s name because a) they love the name and/or b) it’s the name of a beloved family member.

This doesn’t work when choosing characters’ names. In fact, in the category ‘what names do you avoid?’, I’d place names of family or friends! I’d be thinking of their personalities and faces all the time as I was writing, and I’d find that just too odd.

(Having said that, I did appear as myself in a cameo role in Marsha West’s romantic suspense, Tainted. That was really good fun. It was strange at first finding myself in a scene, but author Marsha West made my appearance work really well!)

I’ve found this another thought-provoking topic in our Round Robin, and so here are my nine tips on choosing characters’ names.

helena fairfax, freelance editor, author
  1. The hero of my novel The Summer of Love and Secrets is called Paul Farrell. Paul is a journalist. It wasn’t until the novel was published that I discovered there is a real-life Paul Farrell who is a journalist, for the Guardian, amongst other publications. I checked out his Twitter profile and he even looks a little like my hero!

I’d like to hope the real Paul Farrell would approve of my hero. (One day I should get in touch with him and ask.) So my number one tip is, once you’ve decided on a character’s name…Google it before using! I found this out the hard way.

2. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know how much I love symbolism. Choosing a name that’s symbolic of your character’s personality is good fun. Felicity, the heroine of Felicity at the Cross Hotel, brings happiness wherever she goes. Kurt Bold, the hero of Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures, is a brave man of few words. ‘Kurt by name and curt by nature,’ as the heroine says of him!

3. In a similar vein, try to choose a name that suits the character’s personality or their job. If you have a duke in your story, he’s unlikely to be called Wayne (although it could be fun if you did decide to give him this name!) This leads onto…

4. Beware of passing your own name prejudices onto your characters. Perhaps you remember that kid in class who was a bully. There was a bully in my class called James, and I have a bully in my short story for Christmas at Miss Moonshine’s Emporium called Jim. (With many apologies to all the really nice Jameses out there.)

But name prejudice is something to be wary of, as this article in the Daily Mail called ‘”Chav” names feared by teachers’ shows.

Other practical tips:

5. Don’t use similar names for your characters. This is something I look out for when editing. I just edited a manuscript with a female character called Jess and a male character called Jessie. I know how easy it is as a writer to become involved in your characters and not ‘see’ them from the outside. Of course we do meet people with similar names in real life, but this can easily cause confusion for readers, and confusion is to be avoided.

6. Try not to have a massive difference in the names of siblings. For example, a brother called Gyuri and a sister called Anne may seem odd – unless there’s a particular reason in the plot for the difference

7. If you’re writing historical fiction,  try to make sure the names you’re choosing are appropriate to the time. (Chardonnay and Kai are fairly recent names in the UK.) This is an obvious tip, but reading lots of fiction from the era helps.

8. Read the name aloud. If your novel is ever turned into an audiobook, how will the name sound? A Helena Rigby could be an Eleanor Rigby in a Yorkshire accent. Is the name clear and understandable?

9. Fantasy authors have both a wonderful opportunity to be inventive and perhaps an even more difficult job of coming up with great names. But some of the greatest characters in fiction have invented names: Bilbo Baggins, Voldemort, Professor Snape. But even in straight fiction you have some leeway. Charles Dickens invented some wonderful, larger-than-life names for his characters that have stood the test of time. My tip – if you’d like to invent a name – is either create an invented name for just one character (the hero or anti-hero) or for all the characters, but try to avoid a mish mash throughout.

Choosing characters’ names can be one of the fun parts of writing, but it is quite important to get it right straight from the start. I’ve had to change a character’s name halfway through writing the novel, and it was disorientating and even a little upsetting – like changing the name of a child!

*

Another excellent topic in our Round Robin series. If you’d like to find out what the other authors have to say on this subject, please click on the links below!

And if you’re a writer, how do you go about choosing your characters’ names? Are there any characters’ names in other fiction that you really love and have stuck with you?

If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea

Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/

Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com

Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-2i7

Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/

Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/

Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/

Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com

Anne Stenhouse https://goo.gl/h4DtKv

29 thoughts on “9 Tips for Choosing Your Characters’ Names

  1. I had to change a couple of character names in my first book, because during the course of writing it I discovered that one shared the name of a very senior member of staff in the organisation I’d just started working for and became friends with someone who shared the name of the other one.

    It’s one of those things where you can’t get away with things in fiction even though they happen all the time in real life, isn’t it? My own family is Roberts and Johns all the way back for the last two hundred years; if I were writing that family saga I’d have to keep it to one of each. There’s also the ‘Tiffany problem’ (credit to Jo Walton for coining the phrase, I think) – where the name you’ve chosen is in fact perfectly plausible for your setting (‘Tiffany’ as a diminutive of ‘Theophania’ was used in the Middle Ages) but good luck getting the modern reader to believe that!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I hadn’t heard of the ‘Tiffany problem’, Kathleen. That’s a great description. I’ve claimed blithely that Kai is a recent name in the UK, but maybe I’m wrong there, too!
    Actually, I love the idea of a saga of two families with ancestral Roberts and Johns. But it’s one of those things where you’d have to point it out to the reader in a way that shows you know it seems unlikely (even though it’s happened in real life).
    I had a friend at school called Lucia, but her family wasn’t Italian and her sister was called Sue! It does happen, but again, you’d have to give the reader a reason, so it doesn’t just seem odd. (As it happens, my friend Lucia was the last person in her Catholic parish to be baptised during a Latin mass – hence the name.)
    I find it really interesting how names are chosen, and how they become part of us. It must have been a wrench to have to change your characters’ names.
    Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your interesting comment!

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  3. Great post, Helena. We agree over the ‘stuck’ letter problem. Kathleen, my writers’ club in Edinburgh heard a great talk on how writers have to avoind all sorts of words considered too modern by readers. A lot are in Shakespeare, too. anne stenhouse

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anne, that’s interesting about historical authors avoiding vocab considered too modern, as well as names. That’s made me remember how I heard recently that OMG is over a hundred years old. I guess readers would think the author must have made a massive error if they used the expression in a 1920s novel.
      Thanks for your great comment. I’ve really enjoyed this topic!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Stuart, sometimes I wish I could just pluck names out of the air without agonising for ages! Maybe we need a middle way :) I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Rhobin, I have the opposite problem. I enjoy choosing names for villains, but I always spend ages thinking up a name for my hero and heroine – especially the hero, for some reason!
      Thanks for setting us another great topic.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Forgot to mention, I started out, like you, feeling that using a family name might incline me to endow the characters subconsciously, perhaps, with the characteristics of that person I know. But I had one exception. I had a wee grandson Sam who died of SIDS at 5 months so there has been a Sam somewhere in every book written since. A few years later another grandson was killed in a freak playground accident so now there is a Philip in all my books as well – usually both are minor characters. But then the rest of my grandkids wanted their names to appear in my books. I gave in and honored their requests. Most have nothing in common with the grandchild beyond the name, but a couple who were teenagers in the story, and named after teenage granddaughters, I’ve used them as resources for what music they listen to, language they use, books they read etc to keep my teenagers current with the times.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Skye, I’m so very sorry to hear of the deaths of your grandsons. What a wonderful idea to keep their names alive in your novels. And that the rest of the grandkids now also have to be name-checked has made me laugh :)
      I also find it really useful to have younger family around who I can ask about current trends. At my age, l still find it hard to believe that the 90s are now old hat :D
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment

      Like

  5. Your point about naming siblings reminded me of a family I knew. Mom and Dad were John and Jane (I kid you not!) the children were James, Jennifer, Joy, and Justin. I do not remember their surname but all those J’s were a mouthful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That might make for a great story, though, Vicki! Even better if the surname starts with J :)
      Really enjoyed this topic. Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Like

    1. That’s interesting you also find choosing the villain’s names difficult, Beverley. I don’t know why, but I find it much hard to choose the hero’s name. This has been an interesting topic again. Thanks very much for dropping in!

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  6. I’ve invented some names, but not for my main characters and only in one of my books so far. In that particular book, all of the characters from the alternate universe had the invented names. They didn’t appear that often, but they were important characters.

    I often name my characters based on the meanings of the names and how well they match their personalities.

    Informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I often look up the meanings of names, too, Marci, before choosing them. I’ve only ever made up a name for a villain in a story. He was an aristocrat, and I didn’t want to offend any real-life aristocrats :)
      I like the idea of the alternate universe, where people have different names to ours. Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your interesting comment!

      Like

    1. Yes, Anna is a popular name in Eastern Europe, Dr Bob, I’d forgotten that. And Anne Frank’s name would have been pronounced ‘Anna’ in Holland, too. Thanks for dropping in, and for your reminder!

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  7. Hey, Helena. Oh, my thanks for the shout out. I did love getting to use your name and your word “chuffed.” :) That was your “reward”? for naming my book. Much appreciated. Your post as always is so helpful. I struggle with names and I have trouble remembering them. I frequently have to refer to my cast of characters list and even then I mess up. The biggest goof was having two daughters with too similar names. Their moms were the heroines in two of my series books. Daughters were Blair and Bailey. I actually pubbed the third book with the wrong name, after I’d gone through and done a replace because I got them confused. I re-pubbed with the correction, but yikes a lot of extra work.
    The other thing I work to avoid on names is using one that ends in s. It becomes so confusing when you get to plurals and possessives. Just cleaner to avoid, unless it’s a very minor character.
    I wish I did your symbolism thing, but I’m so concrete, that never crosses my mind. I find the obits helpful. And yes, you do need to be aware of time frames. A friend used to check out best girl and boy names for the year her characters would be born. Great post, Helena. I’ll share. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marsha, it was great fun appearing in the wonderful setting of Red River. Ever since I read my fictional Helena Fairfax’s appearance there, I’ve wanted to go in real life. Thanks so much for giving me a role!
      And that’s a great point about the ‘s’ at the end of a name. I seem to remember struggling with that one once myself, but I think I’d got past the point of no return and just muddled my way through it. I’ll ‘think on’ next time, as we say in Yorkshire.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment. And thanks for sharing. I appreciate it!

      Like

  8. Once you read my post, you’ll know why I have no trouble at all with naming villains. LOL. But I do let the characters “tell” me their name–if I can get them to do so. Or if I start writing with another name, they’ll let me know usually, if it’s the wrong name!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fiona, it’s great when the character ‘tells you’ their name. I wish I knew why/how that happened, and why sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s wonderful when characters leap pretty much fully formed into your mind. I look forward to reading about your villains!

      Like

  9. Named one character after the first girl I would have married in MACNAB, and the main protagonist (also in MACNAB) was called John Sandiman after one of John Buchan’s lost or forgotten characters. Well, I brought him back and no one ever noticed.

    As for DEAR MISS LANDAU, it was all real and those people still walk the earth…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi James, I didn’t know John Sandiman was a John Buchan character, and so I’m one of the people who never noticed! But this means John Buchan called one of his own characters John. I wonder why he called him after himself? This raises a whole lot of questions!
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Like

  10. As usual, so helpful. Not really intentionally – maybe sub-conscious, I’m keeping alive the names of two school friends who died young of an inherited condition.
    Secondly, and I think this is more relevant to male characters, last name or first name ?
    Is Darcy ever Fitzwillia ? Maybe the Heathcliff solution works best…. .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a lovely idea to keep the names of your friends alive. An author told me that he always adds the name of one of his grandchildren in his novels.
      You’ve reminded me what a great name Heathcliff is. It’s the perfect name, and it’s an invention. I believe he’s the only character in the book whose name is an invention.
      In contemporary fiction – and in real life – these days we call everyone by their first names straightaway. As a child I was brought up to call strangers Mr or Mrs, which is very old-fashioned now, and people might think you were very stiff if you addressed them in such a way.
      Thanks for your interesting comment. You’ve made me think more deeply about this topic.

      Like

  11. Your responses are always so thoughtful and helpful.
    Yesterday, I was catching up – inviting friends to use our house while we camped or stayed at the office was a bit complicated – so glad we could offer.
    My commemorated friends were twins, they both had MD, badly – not Duchenne. .

    First name or last, I still find some men a problem… Maybe characters guarded about their first name have a point ( currently binge-watching Endeavour)

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  12. Your comments are always thought-provoking! That’s so interesting about the male characters who only use their surname. It is as though they withhold something about themselves. I’m going to look out for this in fiction in future – and see if I come across any female characters who are known by surname only. (I feel when this is the case, it’s usually because they’ve had this thrust on them, and they’ve been denied their first name – but I’ll need to think more deeply.)
    Thanks again for your great comment. I hope your friends enjoyed their stay!

    Like

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