N is for names

Sin #13: What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose.
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Yeah, that may be true for roses Juliet but most writers think a character by any other name just might not have the same impact.

Some writers prefer to spend a long time picking names for their characters while are others are content to stick a pin in the phonebook and stick with whatever they get. I think I fall somewhere in between these two groups, seemingly plucking names from the ether but then analysing them to see if they suit the character and my story.

Although since I’m preaching about careful analysis of character names I might as well mention the big mistake I noticed recently in my current novel. My two main characters were named Charlie and….Harley.

Yep, that’s right I somehow managed to get 40,000(ish) words into my novel without realising that most chapters sounded like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

“That’s gnarly, Charlie,” said Harley as they walked through the barley.


Although I’m glad to say almost 80,000 words in the mistake has been rectified.

Anyway, enough about my mistakes…

When it comes to choosing a characters names, a lot of people try and pick a name which ‘suits’ certain characteristics in a MC. Bruno for a bulky bodybuilder, Norbert for a nerd, Candy for a dumb blonde…stereotypical as a French man covered in garlic.

But if you think about celebrities we all know and love…

Bruce the action hero
Alice the demonic singer
Arnold the bodybuilder

Names that don’t follow the expectations we have built up for the characters they play and the roles they fill. But that’s how life works. When you name a child you have no idea what they will be like when they grow up, you don’t know if they will be hunky, ugly, skinny, funny…or ginger.

People tend to grow into their names rather than live up to the stereotypical associations we associate with a certain label. I think the same can be said of fictional characters; we shouldn’t spend weeks agonising over the ‘perfect’ name and instead pick a name that suits the story.

The main thing to focus on when naming characters is avoiding potential clashes. While in real life there may be four Jeff’s in your office, it would be a little strange – not to mention confusing – to have four characters with the same name in your novel.

The same goes for characters with similar sounding names. If your novel has a Jeff, a John, a Jack and a Jill then there may be several scenes that have your readers pulling out there hair in frustration.

A good name is as memorable as any action scene or dramatic speech. Names such as Atticus Finch, Sherlock Holmes, Boris Dragosani, Ignatius Perrish, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Skulduggery Pleasant, etc.

All fantastic names…or are they? Would they still be amazing names if the characters had been dull, lifeless and boring? Of course not! It wasn’t the names that made the characters unforgettable…it was the characters themselves!!

So, go out there and create amazing characters and let the names sort themselves out!


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    • Nicole on April 16, 2011 at 23:48
    • Reply

    Many years ago, I bought one of those baby name books to name by characters. I usually just flip through it and pick out whatever name seems normal, suits the theme of the movie but not necessarily the character and is one that I haven't used in previous projects.

    One of my friends borrowed it to read during a pregnancy, so the book has served multiple purposes, which I am happy about because that means I (and other) really got my money's worth, lol.

    I also used to have meetings or discussions with friends of mine, where I would ask them to name my characters or choose from a group of names that I wrote down while outlining the story or script. Those discussions were fun and a lot of times, I ended up using names that they picked. I haven't done this in a long time, but it was an effective way to name my characters.

    In real life, I believe that naming a child is very important and a fell sorry for many babies and children who are growing up with absurd names that their parents gave them, trying to be creative or cute…it's NOT cute and won't help them get a job!

    Earlier this month on my blog, I wrote about baby names and that guy who named his daughter Facebook. Thank goodness that adults have the option to change their name if they want. It's always good to have that option if you grew up with a name that you did not like.

    The Madlab Post

    • Steven Chapman on April 17, 2011 at 00:04
    • Reply

    Definitely got your moneys worth there then! I thought about getting a baby names book but I didn't fancy the million questions I'd get when visitors saw it! I just have a quick search online but usually end up pulling a random name out of thin air.

    I really love the idea of brainstorming with family and friends; I might have to try that one. It's a great way to build characters as well as you can hear what people’s expectations of particular characters are. Thanks for the tip.

    Yeah, baby names nowadays are like cheesy tattoos to some people. A way for them to establish their status rather than the status of their child, the poor bugger that has to stick with it for the rest of their lives!

    Cheers for the comment!

    • MorningAJ on April 17, 2011 at 08:15
    • Reply

    I found a new source of names this week.

    • David Barber on April 17, 2011 at 10:53
    • Reply

    Totally agree, Steven. I normally just use a first name (for flash pieces) and they're usually my mates from Manchester. The internet is a great source for names though, and from all races. I like Morning AJ's source too. Should have thought of that myself, having 3 email accounts that constantly try to sell me viagra, pain killers and knob extenders!

    Great post, Steven.

    • Steven Chapman on April 17, 2011 at 16:04
    • Reply

    Love that list, AJ! Although I have to say I NEVER get emails offering to enlarge my man rod…plenty of penis enlargement emails though.

    I've been through a lot of first names from the people I know as well, David. At first it feels a bit awkward because you're always picturing that person in the role…but as the story develops so does the character and they become an individual, who happens to have the same name as a friend.

    Cheers for the comments, guys!

    • Ellie on April 18, 2011 at 09:54
    • Reply

    What a fabulous post, Steven. I had no problem naming my characters in my horror WIP, The Devil's Song. Kristi and Warwick Black, and Morwenna Maddocks. But for my sci-fi WIP, Dreaming of Sleep, I still haven't settled on names. At the moment I have Myron and Talia. Hate them!

    Ellie Garratt

    • Nate Wilson on April 18, 2011 at 16:54
    • Reply

    You're right: The name won't make the character memorable. But it sure doesn't hurt. A few that pop to mind for me: Rincewind, Myron Bolitar, Ignatius J. Reilly, Flavia de Luce, and Minty Fresh.

    Names like Nate and Steven are good, too, but they don't have the pizazz of, say, a Ford Prefect or Zaphod Beeblebrox. Leave the more traditional names for the more traditional stories and characters. Otherwise, might as well add some life to your characters… by way of their names.

    • Madeleine on April 18, 2011 at 19:19
    • Reply

    Great post. Yes names are very important. They convey so much I think. :O)

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